Technology For All

This post is a response to my friend Kate Mitchell’s recent thoughtful blog post on human-computer interaction. She wrote from the perspective of a computer scientist, and my response is from that of a user experience designer.

I hear a lot of people complain about how cell phones and Facebook are taking over our lives, creating the expectation that we should always be available. But is that true? I think that hinges on whether or not these things force us to do anything. Since they don’t, I think we might need to reexamine the problem.

People might feel pressure to check their email every five minutes, but that pressure is internal, not external. Before the internet, people felt pressured to stay near a telephone. Before that, they eagerly awaited the mail courier or religiously went to gathering places to stay in the social loop. The pressure isn’t new.

To show how the pressure to always be on call is actually something of an irrational social anxiety that comes from within, consider this: when is the last time you got mad at somebody for not responding to your email or Facebook message within five minutes, or got angry because your call went to voicemail instead of being answered immediately? Thankfully, that kind of entitlement mentality is rare, or else we wouldn’t be able to turn off our mobile devices at the theater, which most people manage to do without a problem. You probably haven’t decided to shun anybody for those things, so you shouldn’t worry about the world conspiring to shun you.

In short, the problem is our own insecurity, not the technology.

Another interesting complaint that Kate mentioned in her post that got my attention as a user experience designer was her statement that “The profound satisfaction of getting to know a machine is something that disappears with ease-of-use.”

Her opinion reminds me of the one held by a lot of Gentoo Linux developers. They resisted making the installation process easier for a long time because they wanted people to learn all about their system, which they felt the difficult manual command-line interface installation would make people experts in. And I suppose that it’s a good sign that a computer scientist or a programmer feels that way since in a way, that shows that they really love what they do.

However, as a user experience designer, I’m interested in a different sort of profound satisfaction. My field is all about making technology and information more accessible. I enjoy tinkering with Gentoo Linux and other “advanced computer geek things,” but if everybody that made them felt the way that Kate and the Gentoo developers felt, then a lot of people wouldn’t be able to use technology.

It might be fun for some of us, but computers weren’t invented so that people could sit there and figure out how they work or how to use them. They exist to enable us to do things, and the harder a computer is to use, the more of an obstacle it is to accomplishing things with them. I don’t fear complexity, but I do think that unnecessary difficulty is undesirable.

Graphical user interfaces, mouse and keyboard interfaces, and sites like Wikipedia all come together to make it easy for everybody to access all of human knowledge, not just an elite group of users. I think that’s wonderful, and that kind of thing is why I hope to be a part of helping even more people take advantage of all the things that computers, the internet, and the rest of modern technology enables.

And rest assured, plenty of people will still be interested in the computers themselves. I sure am.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 at 2:39 pm and is filed under All Entries. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “Technology For All”

  1. Nathan Says:

    If all else fails, a little fun along the way helps.

  2. Appleman1234 Says:

    The problem with Human Computer Interaction is like the problem of anything other form of expression or interaction created by humans, it is entirely subjective.

    Different people have different beliefs about how and why a computer should be used and what a computer is , and what interacting with a computer is.

    And just like with politics or religion you have people that believe they are entitled to first of all express their viewpoint and people that not only feel entitled to express their viewpoint but also instigate its mass acceptance to everyone else.

    Objects are invented for a purpose sometimes, or sometimes are just invented based on an inventors whim. But just because these objects are invented for a purpose doesn't mean that is the only thing they can be used for.

    I think it isn't fair to debate what the use case of a computer should be. The difference in your opinions is just a difference in your relationship / interaction with the machine, one mapping it as just a tool like a hammer, and the other anthropomorphising, or automorphising it.

    Ideally both the development of graphic user interfaces and other computing components should be lossless in terms of abstraction such that you don't design or develop the system for a limited use case. But for the most part this doesn't happen in practice.

  3. James Laslavic Says:

    Actually, usability is not subjective in the same way as any other form of expression or interaction. It's quite measurable. Just ask companies like Google! User experience designers have all kinds of objective tests to see if we've improved or hurt the usability of our projects. Yes, what's optimal for you might not be the same as what's optimal for the next person, but I can still mathematically find out what's best for everybody. I can even tweak it to favor a particular group slightly if I want, which I might do for a web site's target audience, for instance.

    I don't follow your complaint that it's not "fair" to debate what the use case of a computer should be. My belief is that if people want to use a system that intentionally eschews user-friendliness, then that's fine, but this shouldn't be forced upon people, and furthermore, I believe that there's something wonderful about making all the benefits of modern technology accessible to everybody. Could you rephrase or explain your disagreement for me, please?

  4. Appleman1234 Says:

    It isn't a complaint or a disagreement, just a comment. I didn't say usability, I said use case. Some people use computers as door stops, is it your role as a developer of software / user interface that they can't do that ?

    Regardless of the intention of software developers and other tool developers (hammers, cars, rollercoasters), you can't anticipate the relationship that humans will have with them. Some people have pillows or rollercoasters as significant others.

    Usability is always calculated based on anticipated use cases that are design or predicted by the developer, because most software doesn't have usage patterns statistics and monitoring integrated.

    You believe in option A, and believe that everyone else should be believe in option A because it is better for everyone.

    Your friend is scared of what is happening in Option A, and is more comfortable with Option B, whether or not she has it as a belief.

    My point is that regardless of what you belief in, what gives you the right to expect other people to share or adopt the belief ? The moment you ignore or underestimate humanity when designing or developing things, and assume that their user experience is average or congruent irrespective their use case, is the moment your design is flawed, regardless of how successful it might be for the given use cases you designed it for.

    Having a flawed design isn't a bad thing, because you can't design for every use case, you can't predict what people are going to do. However the suitable amount of any attribute of the design should be defined by the end user and not the developer.

    Exactly how user friendly a software solution for a given use case should be scalable based on that user's definition and comfortable level of abstract and friendlessness, but as I mentioned in my previous response, just because it should doesn't mean it is.

  5. James Laslavic Says:

    Whether it's classified as a complaint, a disagreement, or a comment, I still don't understand the point you're trying to make or what you're even responding to exactly.

    But based on this post though, it sounds like your schema for user interface design is kind of backward. Assuming I understood you correctly (which I'm admittedly not confident about), you were attacking the field for trying to tell people how to use things. The reason I say that's backward is because a user interface designer will make suggestions based on the different ways users are using the product, as opposed to just jumping to designing and then dictating. User experience design is all about enabling people and optimizing their experience. With respect, any notion of user experience design as something that hampers people or doesn't evaluate how users operate is simply inaccurate.

    But again, I worry that I've misunderstood you. It hasn't "clicked" yet for me, so for all I know, we might be saying the exact same thing in different words. But I don't know. You tell me. :P

  6. Kate Says:

    "People might feel pressure to check their email every five minutes, but that pressure is internal, not external."

    I have to disagree here. People who would never take 3-4 minutes to talk to me in person often get upset with me for not always replying to emails or texts within a specific timeframe, and those are not even coworkers or anything like that… often I have missed morning meetings because people were notified via email at 10PM or so the previous night. Meh.

    "However, as a user experience designer, I’m interested in a different sort of profound satisfaction."

    The process of making technology more accessible requires understanding it in the first place — that is exactly the same kind of satisfaction I was talking about. =)

    "if everybody that made them felt the way that Kate and the Gentoo developers felt, then a lot of people wouldn’t be able to use technology."

    Exactly. ;)

    "They exist to enable us to do things, and the harder a computer is to use, the more of an obstacle it is to accomplishing things with them."

    In some sense, I actually have to disagree with you here. More abstraction != easier to use. I find that using a terminal for most things makes nearly everything go much faster, whereas on a Windows machine or one of those trendy new Apple products, the process of doing what I need to do is a lot more convoluted, IMO. So strictly as a tool, the command line is much better on almost every account (excluding of course graphic design and all that inherently visual stuff). But, the pretty GUIs tend to rope people in, in a way that I find unsettling (I've been over this in my post, so I won't repeat it here).

    "Graphical user interfaces, mouse and keyboard interfaces, and sites like Wikipedia all come together to make it easy for everybody to access all of human knowledge, not just an elite group of users."

    That's very true. But I feel it comes at a price. The only question is if it's worth it. Some will feel it is, some will feel it is not.

    When someone tells me that I must be available on AIM often in order to become a "socialite," or I first find out about my brother's engagement through Facebook, or I see a bunch of people constantly checking their social networking sites in a visibly reptilian manner, or I hear about plans for kids to learn their lessons through software rather than teachers, these things disturb me. So, I am not always sure that the increased accessibility to information is worth the price. I can't say I've decided for sure yet though.

  7. James Laslavic Says:

    In the interest of avoiding a nasty quote tree, I'm going to respond to your points editorial-style instead of line-by-line.

    First of all, the pressue we're talking about is definitely internal. It's psychological. Instead of blaming and cursing modern technology, we should realize that we don't have to let other people "make" us feel pressure, and that we can be in control of ourselves and learn to use and enjoy technology in a psychologically healthy, happy way.

    Next, you say that you think we're talking about the same kind of profound satisfaction. It sounded to me more like you were talkin gabout the satisfaction of finally grasping the fruits of technology that are on branches so high that they're out of most people's reach, whereas I was talking about the satisfaction I feel when I hold the branch down so that everybody is able to enjoy those fruits. Both are valid and respectable, but I don't feel like the kind you were talking about should be the only one. That's all.

    After that, you said "Exactly" in response to me saying that if you and the Gentoo devs had your way, very few people would be able to use technology. Ya got me. I lol'd. Thanks for that. XD

    Back to serious business though! Your next point relies on an incorrect interpretation of something I said. When I wrote that the harder a computer is to use, the more of an obstacle it is to accomplishing things with them, you seem to have confused that for an assertion that abstraction equals ease. I certainly agree that's not true, and never suggested otherwise.

    Alas, the idea of "abstraction" is something we should stop for a moment to talk about. I've noticed that computer programmers have a have a habit of forgetting that command-line interfaces are abstractions too. Since they (correctly) see mouse-clicks as triggering the exectuion of lines of code, they feel like graphic user interfaces are more abstract. To the human mind though, it's much less abstract to do things with a graphic user interfaces. For instance, it's much more natural for our minds to "move" a file by "grabbing" and then "dragging" it to where we want it to go.

    Before you even say it, don't worry! I definitely agree that there are a lot of cases where it's more efficient to enter a command than use a GUI. And hopefully you'll also breathe easier when you read that I don't think we should get rid of these advanced techniques just because they're less intuitive to our human minds.

    That leads to another whole area that's worth talking about. You've probably noticed that right now, a lot of designers have a phiosophy that everything should be as simple as possible and that the way to achieve this is by removing things that are difficult or complicated. I think this is lazy. A good designer won't disable features, but instead, will find a creative way to keep the features while solving the difficulty problems. This way, power users aren't arbitrarily disabled, and Average Joe can get the most out of the tool too. It's harder for the designers to go this road, but that's the design philosophy I practice.

    Lastly, you agreed that there was something good to be said about the increased usability in sites like Wikipedia, but said that the upsides came at a price, and extrapolated with a few examples. I'll address the two examples that aren't already covered by the paragraph about pressure: the displeasure at finding out about your brother's wedding via Facebook, and the fear of plans for kids to learn from software instead of teachers.

    I agree that finding out about your brother's wedding via Facebook seems a bit impersonal, but that's not Facebook's fault anymore than it would have been the telephone's fault if he had decided to call, the answering machine's fault if he'd left a message, or the sticky-pad's fault if he'd used one of those.

    I urge you to reconsider your negative view of learning software though. I agree that teachers are generally preferable to software, but remember that in much of the world, knowledgable teachers just aren't available. I totally support travelling teacher organizations, but they don't fill the gap. Learning software doesn't completely solve the problem either obviously, but it's been a huge boon for a lot of communities, and they're definitely making it so that the next generation will have more teachers and other improved socioeconomic conditions. That's why I think learning program developers should be commended.

    If we keep this conversation going, let's try to shorten our posts, okay? I suffered from an episode of lose-everything-and-rewrite-it for this post, heh.

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