A Browser by Any Other Theme...

Users are more willing to accept change when it doesn't feel like such a...well, change. Firefox knows this, even Emmett's grandmother knows this. It's time for Microsoft to catch on.

As an undergraduate, there was always one day a week where I had a long period of time between classes. While my schedule changed every semester, it seemed like there was no way to organize it so that giant block of wasted time didn't exist. So rather than drive home and back, I just walked a few blocks to my grandmother's house where she would always have something ready for me to eat. Oh, how I hated that.

Now, it wasn't her cooking that I hated, nor was it her willingness to prepare something for me. What I hated was the question she would impishly ask as soon as I finished eating: "Could you tell what that was?"

If it were a bowl of chili, say, I might guess the traditional beef or sausage. Instead, it would turn to be a squirrel her dog had caught, or a raccoon she had hit with the Oldsmobile, or some large animal her boyfriend had been comissioned in the middle of the night to put out of its misery. She delighted in telling me just how wrong I was -- and in the fact that because she was such a great cook, I couldn't tell the difference.

My grandmother understood something that everyone in IT development and integration should understand, too: By making her food look like something I was already familiar with, she caught me with my guard down. If the strange protein hadn't been disguised in the chili, I would've gotten suspicious, put up a fuss or found a way to sneak it to the dog. By carefully playing to my own preconceived ideas about what I was consuming, she was able to sell me on a bowl of squirrel without question.

Firefox understands this concept as well as anyone today.

There are literally hundreds of Firefox themes that let you easily customize the browser. By simply changing the theme you can make the browser look like, for example, Vista -- much to the relief of Vista users who can now work in an environment that they're comfortable with. If you're running Linux, install the Ubuntu theme (or one that mimics another Linux distribution) and the browser becomes consistent with the operating system. You can choose from several office-type themes, Mac OS-like themes, and so on.

I'm confident that this single feature -- the ability to customize appearance -- accounts for a good deal of Firefox's surge in browser share. Indeed, recent reports show that Firefox has now jumped to over 20 percent of the Web browser market, while the share of Microsoft's Internet Explorer has fallen below 70 percent.

I distinctly remember the trade show where I first saw the Windows-based version of Microsoft Office. All of the applications shared the same look and feel. In other words, a "theme." The buzz was that once users learned how to use one application, they could quickly start using another because they had the same theme.

That strategy helped Microsoft win in the office application suite front -- though the company seems to to have forgotten about it recently. Not only is Microsoft losing market share in the Web browser arena, but it has lost ground in the PC operating system class, as well. It has forgotten the time when there was one look and feel for browser, for applications, and for operating system.

If you're involved in integration, one of your goals should be to make the transition from one product to another as seamless as possible for users. If that means swapping their browser and making it look like the rest of their operating system or like the browser they had been using, then do it. If you introduce them to a new application by making the interface look like the one they recognize from their word processor, then you can circumvent a good portion of the learning curve. If you can give users a new operating system and have them know intuitively what to do because it has elements in common with their previous one, then you have a better chance of overcoming their reluctance.

My grandmother was a wise woman. She knew that to overcome my objections, unwillingness and opposition, she needed to make something new and strange look like something old and familiar. It's a philosophy we should all follow -- but minus the squirrel part.

About the Author

Emmett Dulaney is the author of several books on Linux, Unix and certification, including the Security+ Study Guide, Fourth Edition. He can be reached at eadulaney@comcast.net.

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