How to Be Dumb
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Now that Alan Coopers personas have become famous, one of the most prominent and well-known goals for user interface designers is not to make the user look stupid. This goal isnt really new because we all know of situations where we or someone else looked horribly stupid when trying to do something on a computer. Even the smartest women and men can look stupid at a computer if they dont know which button to click, menu command to call, or key to press – defenseless and exposed to the laughter and ridicule of other, less knowledgeable people. I came across so many people who did not dare touch a computer in my presence, either because they feared destroying something on the computer or afraid they would look stupid. As this problem is a really big issue for computer users, one of the most prominent and noble research areas for usability people should be to investigate how computers can avoid making people look stupid.
Figure 1: Like so many other personas, Gerhard – my personal persona – does not want to look stupid when working at the computer
Computers are Intransparent
In the early days, computers were totally intransparent: there were just some switches and light bulbs at the computers front panel that served for the communication with the “knowledgeable.” From time to time, the computers spit out a punched tape, which again required some machine to decode it. (The “experts,” however, could even decode the tape just by looking at it.) Later, computers printed out some more or less cryptic characters, and even later, the user communicated with the computer via keyboard, monitor and mouse – thats the state we have today. But however sophisticated these devices are, we still look into the computers inner workings through a “peephole” called a monitor.
Do we really understand what state the computer is in, which commands it expects and what its cryptic error and system “messages” mean? No – computers often still leave us in the dark about what they expect from us, what they want us to do and what they can do for us. So, its no wonder that even the smartest people can look stupid in front of a computer, but even ordinary people like you and me can too.
Computers are Rigid Machines
As we all know, computers are mindless, rule-following, symbol-manipulation machines. They are just machines, though not ruled by the laws of mechanics but by the rules of logic and by the commands of their programs. Nevertheless, there is no inbuilt flexibility in computers, they just react according to the commands that have been programmed into them.
There have been long debates in the past whether artificial intelligence based on symbol manipulation is possible. Some people have proven that it is, others haven proven that it is not – in the end, this issue seems a matter of personal belief. So, lets return to “real life.” We have all had the experience that computers are rigid in so many ways: they issue error messages, they do not find a file or search item if you misspell a name, they crash if they run on a wrong command. This stubbornness drives many users crazy: they feel stupid because they cant remember even the simplest cryptic command. And they feel inferior to those “logical” machines because they are “fuzzy” human beings who commit so many errors.
Computers Can Cheat – But Not so Well
But even if computers exhibit some flexibility, it is because farsighted programmers have programmed this flexibility into them. Often these programmers are not farsighted enough, or do not take human characteristics into account, such as the desire for a certain stability of the work environment. For example, there is a current trend to make computer systems adaptive in order to make them easier to use. The adaptive menus in the recent Microsoft applications are an example of this approach: the menus adapt their appearance according to their usage – with the result that people like me are puzzled each time they open a menu because it always looks different. So, todays computers are even narrow-minded when they try to be flexible. They still make people look stupid, for example because the system changes its look and behavior in unpredictable ways.
Computers Are too Complex and Complicated for their Users
One of the arguments, often put forward by developers of complex software, is that its not the computers that are stupid but the users. Well, I let this stand as it is, but of course there are many occasions where average users are overwhelmed by the complexity of their computer hardware and software. There are so many things you have to remember and think of, far more than in a car or household. So, if you forget to bear in mind one important detail, all your efforts in trying to impress your friends or colleagues with how well you can master computer technology may be ruined within a second.
Let me illustrate this point with an example. Lately I took some photos of my friends with my awesome digital camera, actually a computer in itself. My friends were enthusiastic about the photos. OK, I said, and now I will print these images in the blink of an eye.