A wake-up call for the current state of personal computing

The huge debate following the iPad’s introduction has taken an interesting direction. It seems that a lot of people, after realising the effectiveness of the iPad’s touch interface and general user experience, have started to question and discuss what’s wrong with the current state of personal computing. In this regard, I’ve really enjoyed the contributions of Steven Frank (this one, and this one) and Fraser Speirs’ article Future Shock. They both point out that perhaps the iPad in itself is not going to be the revolution, but it might be the right step toward some re-thinking and re-designing of modern computer user interfaces, to make them more user-friendly and accessible, and to make the general user experience a more pleasant and less frustrating affair. (Check also the clear, spot-on graphics in this piece by Mike Monteiro on the Mule Design Studio’s weblog).

The iPad, in Frank’s musings, is an excuse to reflect on something broader, but I get the impression that many people have taken it literally. It is naïve to think that New World computing (as Frank calls it) is going to be made exclusively of iPad clones, or that any computer in the near future will have a touch interface regardless of the size of the device, and that everyone will work like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

The scope of the discussion is not limited to multi-touch technology, but encompasses the whole user interface; it is essentially about what has so far worked for a minority of users but hasn’t been enough to provide a simple and immediate (unmediated) familiarisation with the computer for the majority of people. In this sense, the interface of the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad shows that eliminating — or rather obscuring — some unnecessary (for the uninitiated and non-technical users) complications of the interface and of crystallised abstract concepts (files, folders, directories), you can create a more user-friendly experience, and lower the learning curve.

Sometimes people ask me to explain what I think is wrong with personal computing and the user interfaces of many computer platforms today. I think the following excerpt from Donald Norman’s seminal book The Design of Everyday Things nails quite well the core of the matter (emphasis mine):

Designers often think of themselves as typical users. After all, they are people too, and they are often users of their own designs. Why don’t they have the same problems as the rest of us? The designers I have spoken with are thoughtful, concerned people. They do want to do things properly. Why, then, are so many failing?

All of us develop an everyday psychology — professionals call it “folk psychology” or, sometimes, “naïve psychology” — and it can be as erroneous and misleading as the naïve physics that we examined in chapter 2. Worse, actually. As human beings, we have access to our conscious thoughts and beliefs but not to our subconscious ones. Conscious thoughts are often rationalizations of behavior, explanations after the fact. We tend to project our own rationalizations and beliefs onto the actions and beliefs of others. But the professional should be able to realize that human belief and behavior are complex and that the individual is in no position to discover all the relevant factors. There is no substitute for interaction with and study of actual users of a proposed design.

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There is a big difference between the expertise required to be a designer and that required to be a user. In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device.

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Professional designers are usually aware of the pitfalls. But most design is not done by professional designers, it is done by engineers, programmers and managers. One designer described the issues to me this way:

People, generally engineers or managers, tend to feel that they are humans, therefore they can design something for other humans just as well as the trained interface expert. It’s really interesting to watch engineers and computer scientists go about designing a product. They argue and argue about how to do things, generally with a sincere desire to do the right thing for the user. But when it comes to assessing the tradeoffs between the user interface and internal resources in a product, they almost always tend to simplify their own lives. They will have to do the work, they try to make the internal machine as simple as possible. Internal design elegance sometimes maps to user interface elegance, but not always. Design teams really need vocal advocates for the people who will ultimately use the interface.

Designers have become so proficient with the product that they can no longer perceive or understand the areas that are apt to cause difficulties. Even when designers become users, their deep understanding and close contact with the device they are designing means that they operate it almost entirely from knowledge in the head. The user, especially the first-time or infrequent user, must rely almost entirely on knowledge in the world. That is a big difference, fundamental to the design.

Innocence lost is not easily regained. The designer simply cannot predict the problems people will have, the misinterpretations that will arise, and the errors that will get made. And if the designer cannot anticipate errors, then the design cannot minimize their occurrence or their ramifications.

I am glad that the iPad has fuelled this debate, and roughly two months before shipping, even. If this serves to make other programmers and developers understand that most people need a more accessible computing experience, that is fine. I’m sure that those among them who shall deem appropriate to move in the iPad direction, will do so, thus shaping the change toward a better personal computing (at least one hopes so). And those power users who prefer to delve into more complex interfaces will continue to do so, just as it happens in many other areas where those with more experience can take advantage of more complex and more sophisticated tools than the common user.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!