Whose mistake is it, anyway in Java

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Conventional wisdom says that error messages tell users when they have made a mistake. Actually, most error bulletins report when the computer gets confused. Users make far fewer substantive mistakes than imagined. Typical errors consist
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Part III: Designing Interaction Details
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of a user inadvertently entering an out-of-bounds number, or entering a space where the computer doesn t allow it. When a user enters something unintelligible by the computer s standards, whose fault is it Is it a user s fault for not knowing how to use the program properly, or is it the fault of the program for not making the choices and effects clearer Information that is entered in an unfamiliar sequence is usually considered an error by software, but people don t have this difficulty with unfamiliar sequences. Humans know how to wait, to bide their time until the story is complete. Software usually jumps to the erroneous conclusion that out-of-sequence input means wrong input, so it issues an evil error message box. When, for example, a user creates an invoice for a customer without an ID number, most applications reject the entry. They stop the proceedings with the idiocy that the user must enter a valid customer number right now. Alternatively, the application could accept the transaction with the expectation that a customer number will eventually be entered, or that a user may even be trying to create a new customer. The program could provide a little modeless feedback that the number isn t recognized, then watch to make sure the user enters the necessary information to make that customer number valid before the end of the session, or even the end of the month book closing. This is the way most humans work. They don t usually enter bad codes. Rather, they enter codes in a sequence that the software isn t prepared to accept. If a person forgets to fully explain things to the computer, the computer can, after some reasonable delay, provide more insistent signals to the user. At day s or week s end, the program can make sure that irreconcilable transactions are apparent to the user. The application doesn t have to bring the proceedings to a halt with an error message. After all, the application will remember the transactions, so they can be tracked down and fixed. This is the way it worked in manual systems, so why can t computerized systems do at least this much Why stop the entire process just because something is missing As long as users remain well informed throughout, there shouldn t be a problem. The trick is to inform without stopping the proceedings. We ll discuss this idea more later in the chapter. If the application were a human assistant and it staged a sit-down strike in the middle of the Accounting Department because we handed it an incomplete form, we d be pretty upset. If we were the bosses, we d consider finding a replacement for this uptight, petty, sanctimonious clerk. Just take the form, we d say, and figure out the missing information. The authors have used Rolodex programs that demand you enter an area code with a phone number even though the person s address has already been entered. It doesn t take a lot of intelligence to make a reasonable guess
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25: Errors, Alerts, and Confirmations
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at the area code. If you enter a new name with an address in Menlo Park, the program can reliably assume that the area code is 650 by looking at the other 25 people in your database who also live in Menlo Park and have 650 as their area code. Sure, if you enter a new address for, say, Boise, Idaho, the program might be stumped. But how tough is it to access a directory on the Web, or even keep a list of the 1,000 biggest cities in America along with their area codes Programmers may now protest: The program might be wrong. It can t be sure. Some cities have more than one area code. It can t make that assumption without approval of the user! Not so. If we asked an assistant to enter a client s phone contact information into our Rolodex, and neglected to mention the area code, he would accept it anyway, expecting that the area code would arrive before its absence was critical. Alternatively, he could look the address up in a directory. Let s say that the client is in Los Angeles so the directory is ambiguous: The area code could be either 213 or 310. If our human assistant rushed into the office in a panic shouting Stop what you re doing! This client s area code is ambiguous! we d be sorely tempted to fire him and hire somebody with a greater-than-room-temperature IQ. Why should software be any different A human might write 213/310 into the area code field in this case. The next time we call that client, we ll have to determine which area code is correct, but in the meantime, life can go on. Again, squeals of protest: But the area code field is only big enough for three digits! I can t fit 213/310 into it! Gee, that s too bad. You mean that rendering the user interface of your program in terms of the underlying implementation model a rigidly fixed field width forces you to reject natural human behavior in favor of obnoxious, computer-like inflexibility supplemented with demeaning error messages Not to put too fine a point on this, but error message boxes come from a failure of applications to behave reasonably, not from any failure of users.
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