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.