While looking for more accurate information about Mr. Ludd, I came upon an essay by Thomas Pynchon, published in The New York Times Review of Books on Oct. 28, 1984. Under the title “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” Pynchon wrote, “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead.”
Well, maybe. But that was then and this is now. Although I’m hardly a Luddite, recent painful experiences lead me to take issue with the phrase “so user-friendly.” For instance:
I used to have excellent map skills, and in fact probably still do, but today large-scale detailed paper maps can be hard to find. Google Maps and its competitors are helpful if one has immediate and speedy access to the Internet on a big screen. But on the road in a car, that’s not the case, so I’ve been an early adopter and (in unfamiliar territory) a regular user of a GPS. The first one of these, bought for my wife, proved invaluable when off the beaten path; it was comforting to know that we could always find our way back to civilization — that is, the nearest interstate. That first GPS cost more than $500, in part because it was bundled with a PDA (personal digital assistant), a now-vanished technology that we never used anyway.
Our second GPS was bought for driving to Yellowstone a couple years ago, a trip with frequent diversions into small towns in the middle of nowhere as my wife dug into her family history. The new device, made by the same company, cost less than half what the original did and it had a bigger and brighter screen, but it was markedly less user-friendly, to the point where I seriously considered acquiring a small sledgehammer.
It no longer told us what road we were on, just the name of some upcoming cross street. It no longer showed a track of where we had been to help us avoid traveling in circles. It replaced the easily identifiable car icon by one in a shape and color that made it indistinguishable from the background. It removed any hint of a scale from the display, so there was no way to tell whether the next tiny village was a mile away or a hundred. It didn’t let us pan around the screen to see context. And it had a mind of its own about interchanges, maniacally zooming in whenever we came near a complicated intersection, so we could tell only that we were somewhere in a maze of ramps.
Gearing up for a trip late this summer, I bought a newer version of the same GPS, at a third of the price of the previous one. This model does tell us what road we’re on, and the car icon can now often be distinguished from the background. It also has a large repertoire of recorded street names, so it can say (in the voice of a robot female drill sergeant) “in point one miles turn right on Prospect Avenue.” Unfortunately, its tiny little processor can’t keep up with this task, so the message is more like “in [snap crackle pop] turn [long silent pause] on [static].” There’s still no scale or panning, and it’s even more aggressive about zooming in on interchanges.
There’s an art and even some science to creating good user interfaces. One of the simplest rules is to enlist potential users as victims and get their frank opinions before the design is frozen. Our world is full of gadgets and systems like my GPS that have focused on elaborate “features,” apparently at the expense of this basic step. It’s hard to believe that such flaws would not have been remarked on by anyone who tried to use the device in real life. In recent weeks I’ve struggled with cell phones, cable TV remotes, computer networks, e-mail and online calendars. An expert would charge a huge consulting fee to explain how their user interfaces are the antithesis of friendly. I’d happily spell it out for free; just ask.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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