Scientist pushes form over content in IT design

TORONTO — The Information Highways 2002 Conference opened Tuesday with a surprising swipe at the high-technology industry as Alias/Wavefront Inc. chief scientist Bill Buxton blamed 20 years of empty progress in computer technology

on an ignorance of human needs.

“”If Rip Van Winkle went to sleep in 1982 and woke up today, he’d be able to drive today’s computers as well as today’s cars,”” Buxton said, claiming that computing technology has been pretty much stalled since the introduction of Xerox Corp.’s Star Information System. “”There’s been no fundamental change.””

Buxton, who has also long been a consulting research scientist with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), said the changes that are often praised — computers have been made smaller, faster, cheaper and more plentiful — are hardly worthy of kudos because they were inevitable. Buxton noted more useful developments like networking, wireless technology and input and output advances, but argued these barely register in the public consciousness.

Computers, he said, have been mired in the same one-size mold since the Xerox Star, with the combination of mouse, keyboard and monitor act as “”jack-of-all-trades”” computing tool with little deference to the needs of humans. He said companies, including the Toronto-based 3D graphics provider that employs him, need to adopt a more innovative, human-centered approach to developing technology.

“”The best example of industrial design is that we’ve made our own tools transparent and candy-coloured,”” Buxton said in reference to Apple Corp.’s iMac. “”The most important component in the system is the human being.””

Those features of a computer — the form it comes in and how it fits in with human nature — should be the focus of tech companies, Buxton said.

The human “”threshold of frustration,”” he said, sits at about the complexity of the video cassette recorder, while innovations like multimedia and the information highway are above that level. He said it is incumbent upon tech companies to make products that fit within human capacity, which, unlike the speed of computer chips, is not increasing.

“”If the functionality lies above the threshold of frustration, it doesn’t exist in human terms, period,”” Buxton said. “”If the intended user can not access the intended functionality within the threshold of frustration, you fail.””

A computer’s usefulness and usability are, in part, determined by its form, Buxton said. A car radio, he said, is an enduring browser, while streaming audio is quite useless because computers are rarely found in the same room as stereos. The computer, then, should come in stereo-like form.

“”The moment you’re conscious of using a computer, you’ve failed as a designer,”” he said. “”Take computing to the user, not the user to the computer.””

During a later panel discussion on content management, Rob Bienvenu, chief planning officer for Chicago-based enterprise services company Divine Inc., echoed Buxton’s emphasis on ease of use. He said his mother reported her favourite Web site to be because of its simplicity, while she hated Disney Online because it made her “”feel stupid.””

“”If you get this way,”” Bienvenu said of Disney, “”You destroy years of brand-building and trust.””

Buxton said making technology that works for people requires a heterogeneous mix of designers and a focus on the “”net benefit.”” Rather than producing devices with strong, specific capabilities or devices with weak, general capabilities, Buxton said tech companies should work towards devices with the power of many strong, specific tools but with the apparent complexity of weak, general devices. Though the car is a computer and the cell phone is a computer and the radio is a computer, these devices act independently, in a manner that mixed with human error, can have fatal consequences.

“”The net benefit comes from, the phone is a computer, the car is a computer. Neither of them have identity crises. And they can work together in the network if anybody paid attention to the sociology of these devices,”” Buxton said.

Campbell Robertson, Nepean, Ont.-based field marketing manager for conference exhibitor Open Text Corp. said his company has tried to reach this net benefit with its Livelink collaborative application.

“”Livelink is providing a general platform for core management, then you have the specifics, dynamic meetings, e-learning capability,”” Roberston said. “”The big thing is that we’re trying to keep it at the browser level. In order to get the value of knowledge, you need to be able to access it.””

Robertson stressed the importance of collaboration in knowledge management and Ann Rockley, president of Markham, Ont.-based The Rockley Group Inc., characterized it as the goal of enterprise content management in the aforementioned panel discussion. But Buxton went further, positioning collaboration, specifically, heterogeneous collaboration, as a key step towards improved technology and more dynamic communities.

He said it is a huge mistake for universities to be skimping on humanities and arts faculties in favour of the sciences because technology has to be able to work for people. Buxton advocated more collaboration between funding agencies and faculties at the graduate level and said following the research-in-isolation approach is a way to avoid success.

“”Unless our education system starts to reflect the value of developing heterogenous social networks consistent with the skills we need, our hands are tied behind our back,”” said Buxton, who was a lecturer with the University of Toronto’s computer science faculty before joining Alias. “”The first jurisdiction to make these changes will win. All we are doing is keeping up. You don’t win by keeping up.

“”The way you generate value is by doing something no one else does.””

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