Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ultimately, You Can't Tell People How To Use Technology

I've been mulling over a New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell about Steve Jobs. It characterizes Jobs as someone who tinkered with products until they achieved what he considered perfection. And because he considered the finished products perfect, there was no need to allow others (i.e. users) to tinker with them further. Thus a lot of the devices that Jobs gets credit for are also strangely closed, or they would be if their maker had had his way.

I find this problematic on a number of levels.

First, I recently came across the phrase "If you can't modify it, it isn't yours" (in the comments section), and it resonates. It's very rare that a device (or a living space, or any object really) is so suited to its purpose that there is no desire for alteration. I would say that the best objects anticipate this, and flexibility is built into the design so that users can customize as needed. And maybe a lot of design problems could be prevented by focusing on the notion that the user directs the device rather than the other way around.

When I think about my use of Apple products, I give them a lot of credit for successfully anticipating what I want to do. When I got my own computer for the first time, a first-generation iMac, I was attracted to the idea that I could plug it in and do what I needed very simply. There were times the iMac wasn't perfect, but I was able to work around them. Even if iPhones are actually somewhat locked down technically, users feel free to customize them with apps.

Observing people at the library's public computers, I notice that they regularly disregard our attempts to explain how they can and cannot use the machines. They just try and do whatever they need to, wherever they sit down first and regardless of what the signs say.

Put simplistically, the technology that wins in the long run is the technology that works. If you try to get a device to do something and it tells you NO all the time, you've discovered a market for something better. In my experience, if I'm frustrated by technology, I know I am probably not the first to be irritated, and I know that someone more computer savvy than I am has probably found or made a solution. Or they're about to.

That there are so few perfect tools is magnified by modern technology. When something becomes available for purchase, download, or installation, its users -- connected to each other & frequently collaborating -- instantly take over and make it work for them. This makes it surprising that we're willing to mythologize one single person in this process. It also makes it surprising that we're attempting to build durable electronic libraries while everything is still so untried.

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