The trouble with technology

I smashed my telephone last week. I used the handset as a hammer and beat it into pieces. A luddite fit, a blow for freedom, incipient madness? I don’t know. The telephone was just the whipping boy. It was the computer that had annoyed me, but I dared not attack that. I am hardly a worst-case customer for technological equipment. I’m numerate, degreed in science subjects, design-aware, calm and rational, as you can tell. I should be their friend. I’m not

The phone had incurred my wrath because I had forgotten a PIN, or pressed 2 when I should have pressed 1 and couldn’t retrace my steps, or it had called me back out of the blue to tell me my own telephone number, which it does from time to time for its own amusement. It had it coming.

There are organisations such as the Research Institute of the Consumers’ Association which test the usability of products on the market, but by then it is too late. The idea of seriously testing usability before a design is finalised is a novelty. There is a variety of academic and scientific (or pseudoscientific) means of studying the way things are used, but they tend to be too slow, too expensive or too abstruse for the objects of most manufacturers’ desire. When techniques such as ethnography are used, they are often perverted in order to lead to solutions of a particular type. Remote control devices have been studied in this way. It is observed that, like cavemen with a firebrand, possession is all-important. In a household, each person in possession will use the device in a different way. This unbiased user observation is grist to the technologist’s mill. He (always he) can now see how to solve this “problem” by introducing means by which each user may customise the settings. A complicated “improvement” gradually displaces the formerly simple gadget.

Studies of this kind take months to do properly. The author of a well regarded book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, Donald Norman advocates a quick and dirty version of this kind of research, doubtless offensive to the academics but essential if any genuine knowledge of user behaviour is to be incorporated within the timescale of typical product development. Norman is one a small band of people who have become self-appointed champions of usability in computerised products; his business partner Jakob Nielsen and several others of this clan will be speaking at a London conference on Monday optimistically or vaingloriously entitled “Design for Usability: Beyond User-Friendly”

The trouble is that these people aren’t whole-heartedly on the user’s side. They are on the side of the user only if the user is happy to accept that more technology is the solution to the smallest problem. They all reveal their true colours in the end. Norman’s latest book, The Invisible Computer (MIT Press, 1998), conveniently comes with a subtitle that saves you the trouble of reading it: “Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution”. Here, Norman has tempered his earlier scepticism about technology-driven products, and now imagines a world in which practically everything has “intelligence” built into it, so that if you lose a sock, for example, you have the solace of knowing that it is of course an intelligent sock for which you can simply execute a computer search.

It is bleak encouragement to find that Norman believes that today’s computers may be at their peak of cussedness. “The usability of all technologies is poor whenever the power and performance of the technology fall below the level required by the users,” Norman writes. “Here is where the device is difficult, for the user needs numerous controls and adjustments to compensate for the impoverished technical abilities of the device.” In due course in this scheme of things, more powerful technology restores the balance of capability and usability. Computers may be over the worst. Socks have yet to walk this purgatorial path to the paradise of the intelligent future. The general tendency, when presented with the abundant shortcomings of the gadget of today, is not to say that such and such an improvement might be made. Oh, no. Not when there’s this new and superior technology around the corner that will make that gadget obsolete. Adding insult to injury for ordinary people, our present complaint of difficulty of use is not merely ignored but actually exploited as the excuse to rush forward to the next technology.

Here is where a deeper falsehood lies. Usability is not a quality of technology per se, but of things. The more usable product in fact may be the one that is less technologically advanced. This is famously the case with Microsoft’s Word software whose sixth version is bogged down with clever, but useless tricks, leading many users to stick with the previous version. But the manufacturers and their usability puppets can’t afford to admit this. Not for nothing does Word’s spell checker fail to acknowledge the existence of the word “luddite”.

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