Aug 24, 2005

Leonardo’s Laptop...

One of the books that I have recently read is Leonardo’s Laptop, by Ben Shneiderman.  In some regards, this book is similar to some of the other books that I have discussed on this site, such as The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, which basically state that today’s software is, in a word, unusable.  The amount of knowledge that people need to do to get a task done with a computer is still very substantial, and in some regards, this is a barrier between the user and their goals.

I have recently relocated, and with any joy of relocating comes the joy of opening new accounts.  The variety and disparity of the user interfaces to accomplish the simple task of getting statements and paying bills is unbelievable.  To single one out, my cell phone provider allows me to pay my bill automatically via credit card.  To enroll in this service, however, it takes “one or two billing cycles to take effect.”  Until this takes effect, you must pay your bill normally.  Now, I find this odd on many fronts.  First, why could they not add a little dialog box at the end to say, “Would you like me to charge the current amount due of $XX.XX to this card right now?”  Thus it would appear that this service would take effect immediately.  But because it is not this way, I must entire my information twice.  It just does not make any sense.

On the same token, I have recently had to change my credit card information on this site, and I could not change it for a week.  Why?  Because my bill was pending be charged to my credit card.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Because they were about to charge my credit card, I was unable to change my credit card information for a week.  Again, this does not make any sense.

We really need to take a step back, and look at the software we are writing and make sure that the underlying implementation details are not exposed.  The latter example is a wonderful example of this.  This is purely an implementation detail.  In reality, they could have taken my new information with the caveat that the information would not take effect until the next billing cycle.  Or at least, the error message would occur for at most one hour when they were actually processing my account, and not for the period of seven days.

This is the type of thing that Ben discusses in Chapter 2, “Unusable at any Bandwidth.”  Like his example of the Therac-25, a device that delivered radiation treatment for cancer patients.  While technologically advanced, its user interface was unusable, and caused many errors, including killing some patients.  According to the book, no one could imagine that it was the Therac-25 that was causing this, especially since the logs did not indicate the issue.  But many of these things were caused by incomplete documentation, poor user feedback, and error messages like “Malfunction 54”.  Ben goes on with other examples similar to this.

While the book discusses these matters a bit, the majority of the book is not directly related to this.  The author discusses Leonardo Da vinci’s multi-domain expertise, including technology, science, and arts, and how he was capable of using this expertise in all of his projects.  For example, his accuracy and attention to detail such as the angle of lighting, natural garments disposition, and facial expressions in his paintings.

He uses this as the introduction to the idea that we should rethink the way that we create software.  Instead of creating good-enough software or creating a portion of the software extremely well, really addressing every aspect of a software application, from the technology aspect, the user-interface aspect, the testing aspect, etc.  The goal in doing so is to make a great piece of software that can be used by every one, regarding of ability, disability, language, experience, etc., and to create software that you can collaborate with other people.  Ben spends a chapter discussing human activities and relationships and how they interact; collaboration and getting credit for things that you have done are takeaways from this chapter if you do not already believe that.  One of the great misfortunes is that Leonardo did not share many of his experiments with others, and some believe that this cost the world a number of years of advancement, not to fail to mention the number of pages of his work that have gone missing through the years.

The author then proceeds to provide some ideas to get us thinking in the areas of education, business, health care, and government.  I find that some of his ideas are not vastly different than what we have today; for example, he discusses the usability of Access Washington to encourage more usability like this.  Other ideas are just simply outrageous, such as the idea of placing a device on each tree, which would be able to tell you what kind of tree this was, the history of the tree, and even maintains a guest book.  I can only imagine the great expense of this type of project, not to fail to mention the number of these that would be vandalized in some form or another.

Some of the other ideas though simply require a lot of work in order to accomplish, and it would require a lot of people fully behind these endeavors.  One of these examples is a world-wide medical database, in which the idea is that no matter where you are, no matter what language a doctor speaks or what time it is, a doctor could review your medical history, your allergies and current medicine, and from this information, be able to treat you.  Furthermore, by placing all this information into a database, the information could be analyzed to find out if other doctors have successfully treated patients with a particular disease.  In this case, doctors could communicate to each other to find out how this doctor was successful and what they would recommend doing.  And as doctors apparently do not have a grading system, this could double as a reputation, similar to ebay’s feedback system.  And this system could also give doctors instance even access to current medical outbreaks, since they currently get updates via periodicals.  As you can see, such a system could easily grow out of control.

But at the heart of this is enriching our lives with technology, no matter who we are or where we are.  This attention to detail is really important for a user experience.  In essence, users should be oblivious to the fact that they are even using computers to accomplish their tasks.  In this vein, I close with two quotes from the book:

Technical excellence must be in harmony with user needs.

Great works of art and science are for everyone.

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