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Dell And Usability

Dell doesn’t think like their users think. When you go to their website, the first question they ask is what kind of buyer you are: home, small business, large business, etc. I don’t know what I am! I guess I’m a small business, but home systems are usually cheaper, and I usually like to buy top of the line PCs, so maybe I need the Big Business section. This distinction is completely lost on me.

I want a PC. What difference does it make whether I’m a home buyer or a small business buyer? I suspect that they are asking me this because they want to charge businesses more than homes, and large businesses even more. To defeat their system, I choose “home.”

Suppose I want a PC to run Linux. (I do, actually, need a small, cheap Linux server). There’s no way to search for computers that come with Linux as an option. In fact, if you click on the “Search” button and type “Linux,” the very first link you get is for something called: “Air Force – Dell and Linux”, some kind of page targetted to buyers in the US Air Force. Very strange.

There’s a link there on the USAF page to “Dell and Red Hat Alliance.” I tried it, hoping it would get me out of the Air Force zone. Indeed it did, but all it had was a list of press releases. Thanks, guys, I’m trying to buy a computer here.

And in fact, what I really want is a Linux computer in a small form factor. We don’t have much room and I hardly ever need expansion cards. How do I tell Dell’s dang web site that I want a small form factor Linux machine?

The only way to really find systems that run Linux is to try configuring a bunch of different systems until you find a system that happens to have Linux as one of the OS options in the dropdown box.

If Dell is really “building one for me,” I don’t see why there are so many confusing product lines and why Dell insists on putting their customers into little boxes based on their arbitrary distinctions. I’m sure it made sense for Michael Dell to organize his executives according to target markets, but it makes no sense to organize the web site this way.

The first principle of usability says that you have to bring the program model in line with the user model. Figure out what the user expects to see on the first page, and make that the first page.

Look at Apple’s hardware page. This makes sense. There’s a list of computers down the side.Or the IBM Thinkpad site. As soon as you click “Browse”, you see an organized list describing the main models and their key differences.

As for search, it’s no longer good enough to rely on crappy old mechanical search engines. At the very least, your search engine must look for common keywords, trademarks, your own damn brand names, and provide a reasonable answer. Search for “Thinkpad” on the IBM website, and you go to the Thinkpad homepage. Search for “Linux” and you go to IBM’s Linux website. But if you search for “Linux” at Dell, you wind up deep inside the site for US Air Force buyers, which is almost certainly wrong.

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.