Ban the box Become the enemy
Today's eye popper was learning that the costs incurred over the first two weeks of the Windows 95 launch were virtually identical to the costs of supporting Xerox PARC since its inception. A sole product with little revolutionary value that outweighed the entire R&D efforts of a seminal technological nursery? Wow!
In his inimitible fire-and-brimstone style, Bill Buxton, a technology visionary, riveted our attention on the real issues surrounding human-computer interaction. Is this how developers should be choosing their priorities and resources? Introducing a software product rendered immediately obsolete by the Japanese flat-screen displays introduced in the same week is certainly a candidate for the firing line in its counter-productive contribution to the evolution of our overall quality of life. (I presume Buxton to mean that the flat screens are "next generation" technology, whereas Windows 95 is not.) And spending enormous time and monetary resources on developing interfaces that consistently run against the grain of natural human motor-sensory, cognitive and social behaviors lacks insight and vision as well.
If you asked any person in any of the most recent three decades to draw a picture of a computer, they would draw it as a CRT, keyboard and mouse. Of course, these are simply input and output devices. Note how this standard image has been elevated to metaphorical status as an information processor, much as the telephone has as a communications interface by members of today's information society. This makes a strong statement about the extent to which humans have adapted to the machine. The fact that the "human" side of the human-computer interface has been virtually ignored is the underlying theme of Buxton's message, as well as that of all presenters at this year's ACM SIGCHI conference held in Atlanta from March 22 to 27, 1997.
At the opening plenary of "Looking to the Future," over 2,000 participants renewed their acquaintance with America's long love affair with Utopian ideals made possible by technology and rhapsodized to its citizens in film and World's Fair exhibits since 1940. This window to the past by media archivist Rick Prelinger illuminated the enslaving rather than emancipating qualities inherent in technology. Ideas such as radio-controlled cars that maintained uniform distances in single-track highways, household tasks automated by robots and intelligent appliances, and all-plexiglass home interiors distanced humans from the rewards of enriching feedback from their tactile, auditory and visual senses and reasoning capabilities.
Buxton said it best. The issue at hand is to free humans from the box by "becoming the enemy." That is, ignore the entrenched metaphor. Instead, render the computer invisible. Build interfaces that enhance the human's natural sensory, mental and social abilities. "The better the idea is," he admonished, "the more it will hold up progress in the future." New products should not continue to be built on artifacts. Rather, they must be redesigned to fit the natural skills and constraints of the humans who use them, as well as to answer changing sets of needs.
For instance, the techno-centric term, "multi-media" should be forsaken for user-centric terms such as multi-channel, multi-modal and multi-tasking. Interfaces must be designed to meet the needs of humans with the skills they naturally possess. Technology provides affordances and constraints that can meet these requirements without constraining people in the process. Today, operating a computer means being "wired" or "plugged in." But what other animal would tolerate the confinement of sitting and staring for hours on end at a glowing box?
Human interfaces should be easily adaptable to the diversity of human tasks and should be transparent to the user. And the computer should be smart enough to "know" in what context it is being used without making the user adapt it to the particular task. While HCI gurus like Pattie Maes from the MIT Media Lab and Ben Shneiderman from the University of Maryland debate the consequences of applying direct manipulation versus software agent metaphors to the design of transparent interfaces, Shneiderman insists that users must maintain control of the interfaces yet feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day by the tasks that people, rather than their technological clones, completed. Trust must be central to interface design so that users understand them, can control them and are confident that they will maintain personal privacy.
Past strides in mobile computing and artificial intelligence are evolving into intelligence augmentation that helps humans do what they're not good at doing and stays out of the way of what humans do well. In the process, previously discrete technologies are merging. Usability is gaining in popularity. And the testbeds of invisible technologies are attracting dynamic and innovative thinkers. Emancipation from the shackles of technological incarceration seems a reality that is within manageable grasp.
So when you see evolving products whose working mechanisms are rendered invisible, or at the very least, intuitive to end users, encourage and support their developers by buying them. As "early adopters" of new technology, the latest "gadgets" always capture our attention. But out of our hands (and often even in them), these gadgets confuse the general population. It's just plain dumb to waste our limited resources in this way. If "universal Internet access" is to be a reality, computers simply must be designed to be intuitive to even the most novice of users. These interfaces must also take into consideration such things as age and disability. When you see the next latest gadget, keep in mind whether you really would be able to effectively interact with the next rendition of a PDA keypad and screen with arthritic fingers and bifocals ... and enjoy it.
ACM SIGCHI is the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction. Next year's conference will be in Los Angeles.
Copyright 1997 by Pamela Saalbach. All Rights Reserved.
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