Posted in good design, not good design by hemmant jha on September 29, 2009

User Proof  |  Making Technology Accessible. Or not.

In a previous article, we touched upon this phenomenon : the great divide which has occured between us and the devices we use. And these are not professional devices with limited appeal – these are mostly everyday electronic devices such as phones and cameras [in many cases combined] that we use daily, for functions far beyond simple vocal communication. Modern multifunction electronic devices are indispensable for our lives in the modern world – we use them to live, learn, work, play.

At the same time as our dependence on these devices grows, we know less and less about how these devices actually work. With the passage of time, it is likely that we will know even less. Does this matter? Should one even be concerned about this divide? After all, since time immemorial, there have always been experts who have been responsible for keeping complex devices in good working order. What concerns us is that in addition to our not knowing, it seems that many of the people who sell us these devices [retail outlets and customer support for consumer electronics, phones, home appliances] do not know too much more themselves. One notices this when tech support often involves little more than the reading back of instructions from a computer display. The standard operating procedure for manufacturers is to issue RA numbers and FEDEX shipping labels for devices to be exchanged, not repaired. Devices are generally so complex and are put together in such ways that they cannot be disassembled or repaired in a way that makes sense financially [associated environmental issues 1, 2, 3].

With such inbuilt opacity, how then can one expect to really connect with a device when it is designed to be replaced at the first sign of trouble, not tended to? And if we cannot establish a meaningful connection with the devices so indispensible to our lives, how could we possibly be expected to care for them or treat them well? How could they be anything but disposable?

And if they are so disposable, how could they become a companion – like a diary or a wallet? How might one humanize technology? Bright colors and smiley faces will not do, neither will floral motifs and gender specific superficialities

I still use fountain pens to write with – I’ve had the same one now for eight years. I know how it writes and the quality of the lines it will lay down when used. I know what inks work well with it, I know how it might behave on flights, when it might clog or dry out. I know how to disassemble it, but that’s usually not necessary with a good overnight soak every few months. I know the device quite well, in about the same way as I know my skin and my hands. A hundred years ago, practically everyone could fix a broken horse-drawn carriage or farm implements. I remember cleaning out the carbuerettor on our Fiat in the 70s with my father – removing it from the block, checking the nozzles and looking for dirt that might have gotten in somewhere. It was very satisfying feeling to hear a car run smoothly and knowing that I’d had someting to do with it.

All manner of enthusiasts seem to take pride in working on / with their equipment. Audiophiles in particular like working on devices like turntables and tube amps. Setting the VTA, rake angle, antiskating, counterweights and loading to extract the last final bit of magic from the groove – is this typical enthusiast behavior? I’d say it is. Others categorize it as being un-necessary, perhaps as fetishism. The truth is that we’re all endowed with various senses and are programmed to use things, to touch, to feel, to smell and taste. The popularity of LV bags on view everywhere in Tokyo and the popularity of butter soft leather and shiny wood accents within every Lexus in suburbia bears this out. 

Cooks take particular pleasure in using the right kinds of knives, the right cast iron pans, the right ingredients. The right kind of deep fryer for whole turkeys is often the topic of intense debate around a particular time of year.

There are clearly many, many more examples of objects and devices that people still feel a strong, emotionallty charged connection with. And not many of these are constant companions, even, unless used professionally. What, then, ails modern electronics?

Clearly, a carburetor, a carriage, a fountain pen, a cast iron pan – none of these are electronic devices [unless examined at the sub-molecular level] – they are mechanical devices. Mechanical devices are generally not too opaque or intimidating, because most such devices seem to be able to tell you what state they’re in. When a pan rusts, there’s no BSoD. As long as devices are able to communicate effectively with their users, the level of staisfaction we derive from owning them and using them will rise, as will the level of care we use them with. Ultimately, we will derive more satisfaction from them.

When my Macbook Pro acts up, the fine people at Apple provide excellent service. But what happens behind the smiling public presence? One will never know, nor does one apparently want to or need to. I’ve had optical drives replaced twice on my machine in 8 months. What went wrong with them – could I have done something to keep them alive? I will never know because the person I get to ask usually does not know – it is more economical in the short term to replace the drive and make way for the next customer than it is to educate the consumer. After my departure, was the recalcitrant optical drive thrown to wolves or sentenced to five years’ hard labour?

A potentially serious consequence of ignorance, either self-inflicted or imposed, is the misuse of one’s own hardware and software for revenue generation by others, along with the accompanying intrusion on privacy. Take this for example : emotion recognition using one’s webcam. All modern laptops and portable computing devices have inbuilt cameras [I probably have the only modern phone without one] – how many of us know how to turn them off completely? Apparently, they’re controlled at the OS level and difficult to tamper with. It’s probably just as difficult to know whether they’ve not been tampered with. When we’re not using them, the assumption is that they’re off. Remember the last time you got an online offer for $5 off your next purchase? There was a block of dense legal text with an ‘I Accept’ button – the gateway to the discount. Did you read it all? It would take nothing for someone to slip in a clause, completely unobserved, giving an organization the authority to observe you through your own webcam the next time you surf the web or shop. 

Free Mocha Frapuccino for you, sir? Yes? Just sign here, intitial here – or just look into this camera and smile.


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