Session 29

The Big Picture


Software Systems

Donald Norman, Commentator

The following exercise serves with Exercise 5 as a bookend to our explorations of user-centered computing this semester. In Exercise 5, we discussed Donald Norman's commentary on the state of user interface design in the late 1980s. Today, we discuss Norman's commentary closer to our time. In the years between the paper you read at the beginning of the semester and the one you read for today, he worked at Apple Computer as a part of an interface development team. He recounts some of his experiences and changes of thought in two works:

I hope that you enjoyed reading "Why Interfaces Don't Work", "Design as Practiced" and "A Conversation with Don Norman". Norman has an interesting perspective on interfaces, one that I find appealing, even when I disagree. He makes me think.

As I stated earlier this semester, I recommend that all people who design things that people use, including software designers, read Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (Basic Books). The book was first published under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things. (He has also written more recent books on the same basic topic.)

Exercise 42: Interface Design as Practiced

Work in teams based on a number assigned in class.

Task 1

Construct a list of three items in "Design as Practiced" and "A Conversation with Don Norman" that are most important for a 171 student to think about.

For each item:

Task 2

Construct a list of three ways in which Norman's ideas about interfaces changed between the time he wrote "Why Interfaces Don't Work" and the time he wrote "Design as Practiced" and gave "A Conversation with Don Norman".

For each item:

Task 3

Construct an argument for or against the assertion, "A computer is not like other devices. We cannot expect its interface to 'go away'."

The tangible result of your work will be your lists and summaries from Tasks 1 and 2, and your argument from Task 3.

Summary of Discussion

As an academic, Norman assumed that behavioral analysis of users on task and usability studies were all that was needed to create good interface. Circa 1990, he made a conscious choice to move into industry, to "practice what he preached" and have an effect on the design of real products. This pair of readings recount his experience working on the Macintosh power buttons.

Norman's time in industry has helped him to appreciate the breadth of the design problem; going in, he focused mostly on the depth of the problem. He learned that what he had always called "dumb decisions" were, in fact, reasonable decisions in the context of Apple's culture. He learned that design was more than behavioral analysis of and usability studies; it also included aesthetics, technical environment, cultural environment, corporate organization, and business realities. Ultimately, Norman has come to a broader appreciation of the difficulty of the task of designing good interfaces--and of the good designs that exist in spite of the difficulties.

Of course, he also still believes that, ultimately, we who develop software need to find a way to make our systems more accessible, more task- and user-oriented, less "there". Ultimately, he still believes that we need to make the computer 'go away'. Is that possible?? Is it desirable??

Here are three important ideas that I got from the paper:

Exercise 43: You Tell Me About You

One more chance to be honest. Class participation counts for 10% of your grade in this course. Assign yourself a grade for class participation on a scale of 0-10. I can think of at least three criteria you should use. Comment on your performance in each:

Be as honest and as fair as you can. I already have a pretty good idea of your level of participation in the course, and I am interested in what you think about the same.

Submit your evaluation before we move on.

Exercise 44: You Tell Me About Me

Work in the same teams as earlier today.

Task 1

After fifteen weeks of study, you surely have a few opinions about user interfaces. As a group, construct a list of three to five of the most important open problems in HCI. Think of it this way: If you had enough money to fund a big research lab on HCI, what are the first few problems that you would try to solve?

Task 2

Last week, as a part of Session 26, I asked you to critique my web space for this course. Now I'd like you to do you, me, and future students of mine a favor. Your task is much broader this time: evaluate this offering of 810:171, the course. Everything is fair game, from the syllabus and textbooks to the content of the course to the format of the course. Please devote special attention to all the class format we've used. It likely differs from the format of most of your previous CS courses.

Follow the same form that you used in Session 38.2:

Be as honest and as fair as you can. I won't take the criticism personally, and it will help me improve the course the next time I teach it.

Submit your group write-up at the end of class. As always, we will close with a short discussion at the end of class.

Summary of Discussion

Why do I ask such questions? Ultimately, you are responsible for your learning. And, as a member of an academic community, you also have some responsibility to the community as a whole.

What was easier/harder about this course for you/me? For you, I suspect that one of the difficulties is staying focused working on exercises every day. Lectures are easier on you in at least one way: your mind doesn't really have to stay involved! Lectures are also easier for me. I have no problem filling time talking. What's toughest for me is creating exercises that help you learn best. Oh, and not breaking in to deliver mini-lectures.

Asking you to think about the course is part of a larger plan: Knowledge acquisition and compilation. Breaks in courses. Preparing for the final means figuring out what was most important. Memorize or understand?

Don't forget the final exam, which is next Wednesday, May 2, from 8:00 AM - 9:50 AM.

Another View on Interfaces and the Complexity of Computers

The following e-mail appeared last year on a mailing list I subscribe to. For those of you who are not familiar with Alan Kay, here is a quick introduction: In the 1960s, Kay was already working on problems twenty years ahead of the their time. He programmed the first system with overlapping windows. He first proposed the Dynabook, a tool that goes beyond today's notion of the laptop computer. He first proposed the idea of programming as objects passing messages to one another. So he can't be fairly accused of being a backward thinker.

Kay was at Apple in early 1990s, along with Donald Norman. On the mailing list, he wrote:

Don Norman and I used to argue about this all the time, and, as usual, he completely misses the point. It's not whether a car will get you from A to B without you having to understand internal combustion, but whether (1) you can thus afford not to exercise, and (2) whether you can thus afford not to understand science and technology. There is a huge difference between what people "want" and what they (and civilization) "need". (This makes a bicycle a pretty good piece of technology, since it still allows you to go flat out and it then amplifies THAT. This is why the old Apple mantra "wheels for the mind" with a bike as the associated image was a pretty good metaphor.)

Technology brings the need for new ethical systems (or at least extensions) because they bring new choices we now have to make that Nature used to take care of automatically (e.g., exercise via sabre-toothed tigers). This is just as true for intellectual tools as it is for those that give us new leverages in the physical world ...

Don can't separate out stupid user interfaces with gratuitously difficult properties (like most VCRs) from those in which the difficulties aren't gratuitous but eventually pay off big (like a violin). The same thing is true of mathematics, science, and other arts, and even reading and writing: we don't want gratuitous difficulties, but instead want (and need) difficulties that change us for the better when we learn to surmount them.

There are two sides to every good story. And notice the viewpoint on ethics and technology. Maybe the old stuff won't work anymore because technology requires us to ask new questions.

Kay is telling us that a computer is not a tool; it is a new communication medium. Many difficulties we encounter in computing are not gratuitous. They matter.

In another message to the same mailing list, Kay made some remarks even more directly related to our discussion of "user interfaces". The emphasis is mine.

When Martin Luther was in jail and contemplating how to get the Bible directly to the "end users", he first thought about what it would take to teach Latin to most Germans. Then he thought about the problems of translating the Bible into German. Both were difficult prospects, the latter because Germany was a collection of provinces with regional dialects, and the dialects were mostly set up for village transactions and court intrigues. Interestingly, Luther chose to "fix up" German by restructuring it to be able to handle philosophical and religious discourse. He reasoned that it would be easier to start with something that was somewhat familiar to Germans who could then be elevated, as opposed to starting with the very different and unfamiliar form of Latin. (Not the least consideration here is that Latin was seen as the language of those in power and with education, and would partly seem unattainable to many, e.g., farmers, etc.

I think Martin Luther was one of the earliest great User Interface designers--because he understood that you have to do much more than provide function to get large numbers of people to get fluent. You should always start with where the end users are and then help them grow and change.

Kay has a pretty far-reaching view of what you and I are doing. Later in the same message he notes that when children in the English-speaking world learn to read and write they are learning the language of William Shakespeare, Thomas Paine, and Bertrand Russell. As they grow in the language, they become able to read and write the same great thoughts in the same language. The process is seamless. Is using computers like that for us and our children?

My Last Words

You are being initiated into the most powerful technocracy to affect man in 500 years. Take its power and your responsibility seriously!

Do good things. I've enjoyed exploring these ideas with you.

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== April 24, 2001