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Taming the digital beast

Making computers easy to use turns out to be a fearsome challenge

Sunday, May 16, 1999

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Not since dogs were domesticated has anything been blamed for more missing homework. Unlike the family pet, however, the family computer is neither lovable nor mischievous. Comparing computers and man's best friend is unfair and inappropriate, of course. The computer is a productivity tool, not a personal companion. It does not wag its tail. It does not eat table scraps. It does not scratch at the bedroom door at5 o'clock in the morning with a leash in its mouth.

And yet the computer industry almost welcomes the metaphor. Lycos, for instance, has adopted a Labrador retriever as its mascot and "Go Get It" as its slogan. More generally, and especially since the arrival of the Internet, PC executives and advertisements have stressed the "personal" as much as the "computer," emphasizing its obedient and friendly (if not quite lovable) nature.

Not that they've made much progress.

"What's wrong with the PC?" says Donald Norman, a computer scientist and consultant. "Everything. Start with the name ... Rather than being personal, friendly and supportive, it is massive, impersonal, abrupt and rude."

Starting Tuesday, about 2,500 academic and corporate researchers will meet here to try to do something about that. The "CHI '99" conference -- it stands for "computer-human interaction" and is pronounced like the last syllable in "Mordecai" -- at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the computer industry's annual gathering to discuss and debate how to make computers easier to use.

It is a debate that has been going on since the personal computer was first invented, almost two decades ago. It is also one that has taken on new relevance, even urgency, as computers have become more popular. This year, for the first time ever, more U.S. households have a computer than don't.

When he first entered the field more than a decade ago, says Peter Lucas, co-founder of the Maya Design Group on the South Side, computer-human interaction "was considered somewhat quirky. Now everyone considers it the center of the universe."


As an academic discipline, computer-human interaction is relatively young and promiscuous. Borrowing from such fields as computer science, psychology, design, statistics and marketing, it has gained in popularity only in the last decade or so.

Still, practitioners say it has existed for much longer. "I've been working in the area of CHI since the mid-'70s, before there was even an acronym," says Dick Berry, a senior technical staff member with IBM's ease-of-use initiative.

There are currently about 30 degree-granting computer-human interaction programs in the United States, including one in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon.

(As with every development in computer science, computer-human interaction must have its own three-letter acronym, or TLA. Despite some angst over putting the "computer" before the "human," CHI is preferred over HCI because it's easier to pronounce.)

"We draw students from just about every college in the university," says Bonnie John, an assistant professor of computer science and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. The university's Human-Computer Interaction Institute has about 30 student's in its master's degree program and 80 in its undergraduate program.

In general, classes teach students how to design and evaluate programs that are easy to use. The need for knowledge of computer science is obvious. Students use psychology to help them understand how the mind perceives and performs certain tasks; design to help them configure the "interface," the part of the program or device that the user sees; and statistics and marketing to assess the success of their projects.

For example, students may be asked to create an "information kiosk" to direct visitors around campus. "The goal for this might be, can a person get their question answered within two minutes?" John says. "We leave a lot of room for creativity. Students have a lot of ways to meet the design goals."

It may not be an exact science, and there may be some disagreement over what the phrase "easy to use" means. But everyone agrees that nothing is very easy now.

"What I personally would like to see is computer tools actually supporting you instead of making you want to throw your computer off your desk," John says. "I would like people to be able to open up an application and say, 'Yes, it does what I need, and yes, I can do it.' What I constantly see now is, 'I believe it can do what I need, but I just don't know."

Technology or usability?

Maya, the South Side design firm, consults with corporate and governmental clients to make their software, hardware and networks simpler and more intuitive. Lucas, who founded the company almost exactly 10 years ago with two Carnegie Mellon colleagues, remembers beginning his venture with a mixture of confidence and uncertainty.

"I had no doubt we were in the right business," he says. "The question was, Were we in the right decade?"

If the roster of sponsors at the CHI '99 is any indication, then the industry has embraced the cause of usability with a vengeance. It includes Microsoft, Sun, Yahoo!, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

At IBM, there are 30 people on the "ease of use" team. "Our role is to infuse ease-of-use engineering approaches into all our products," Berry says.

The team works with developers of the company's Web site, authors of its user's manuals, designers of its keyboards, even the company that packs its computers in their boxes.

The computer industry's newfound interest in "ease of use," while encouraging, is also suspect: This is an industry, after all, known for indecipherable error messages and instruction manuals the size of the Manhattan phone book. ("One of the sayings we have in CHI is, 'Help doesn't,' " John says.) Technology in search of a use is more common than users in search of a technology.

Unsurprisingly, researchers inside and outside the business world say that has changed. Increasingly, says Mark Altom, co-chair of CHI '99 and an engineer at Lucent Technologies, companies want to know how their computers work with humans, not just with other computers.

"For almost all technology, the limiting factor is how easy it is to use," he says. "I can have the greatest product with the fanciest features, but if people don't know how to use it, it might as well not exist."

Lucas, whose company has done work for dozens of local and national technology companies, says the origins of the concern for usability don't really matter -- as long as the concern is genuine.

"I think it's increasingly the belief from the marketing departments of these companies that they're stuck in the mud from the standpoint of usability," Lucas says. But if they can goad the industry into improving its technology, "it's better for everybody."

Of mice and users

Some of the developments to be shown at CHI certainly qualify as advances in technology. Whether they will someday be seen as advances in usability is open to question.

IBM, for example, will show off its "MAGIC pointer," which moves the cursor around the computer screen based on the user's eye movement. The MAGIC pointer (it stands for "Manual Acquisition with Gaze Initiated Cursor") will "provide great productivity benefits," Berry says. "You just look where you want the cursor to be, and it would be there."

A small camera mounted in a monitor tracks eye movement. A mouse is still necessary for "fine-tuning" cursor placement, Berry says. And there are other variables, such how the computer would know whether you want to read an e-mail message or just note its arrival.

"User testing is part of this whole process," he says.

Microsoft, meanwhile, will show its "IntelliMouse" at the conference. Introduced last month, the mouse dispenses with a mouse ball and mouse pad altogether, using optical tracking technology to place the cursor on the screen. It works on any flat surface except glass, which can interfere with the signal it sends back to the computer.

The company is billing it as a cleaner, more accurate version of the traditional mouse. Its optical sensor captures digital snapshots at the rate of 1,500 per second, transmitting them instantly to the screen. And it doesn't catch lint.

"It's the technological revolution that catches the mouse up to the rest of the PC," says Tim McDonough, mouse line product manager at Microsoft.

Maya Design, for its part, will show its "Interstacks" technology, which essentially allows users to take apart their computers and use them for more specific purposes. Software, such as word-processing or spreadsheet programs, is almost infinitely customizable, Lucas says. Why not hardware?

Interstacks is "a self-stacking set of modules" that users can configure to meet their needs, he says. "It's kind of like Tinker Toys."

Then there are the projects discussed but unseen. Marian Williams, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and co-chair of the conference, mentions a project that places computer chips in floor tiles and records the movement of people throughout a room.

And the purpose of that would be ... well, it's unclear.

"Somebody has to have the brilliant idea to come up with a new device," she says. "Other people can say, 'I know how that can be used.' " Then again, "it's probably true in any consumer line, that people put stuff out just to see if people will buy it."

Market cycles

Which raises the question, yet again: Is the computer a consumer product?

Not quite, everyone seems to agree. Most products go through three distinct phases, broadening their customer base at each turn.

For computers, the first audience is the "technologists," says Berry. "They put up with anything." Then there are the "enthusiasts and hobbyists," who "see the benefits of the technology and are willing to put up with ease-of-use idiosyncrasies."

Finally, he says, there is the "consumer realm." In this phase, computers "can be used easily without a lot of training or education."

"I don't think we're quite there yet," he says. "But I think we're right on the knee of that curve. I think all of us are very conscious of that."

As for the family pet, well, no one is suggesting the personal computer -- even the new, improved, user-friendly personal computer -- is quite ready to replace Fido.

There is, however, some research that indicates that "heavy users" are more likely to name their PCs, some going so far as to offer them words of encouragement during particularly difficult tasks. So far, at least, it has had absolutely no effect whatsoever on their performance.

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