Saturday, April 12, 2008

Engelbart's Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use

The five fingered keyboard ...

"Doug Engelbart developed a 5-finger keyboard with keys like a piano, used by one hand...but it was very difficult to learn.

The mouse was the original idea of Doug Engelbart who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. It had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. The problem was, the five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn.

In his book, Designing Interactions, Bill Moggridge muses on the improbable invention of the computer mouse.

“Who would choose to point, steer, and draw with a blob of plastic as big and clumsy as a bar of soap? We spend all those years learning to write and draw with pencils, pens, and brushes.”

Who indeed? At the time the mouse was invented other devices such as the light pen, key pads, and joysticks and even the trackball existed or were being considered for pointing devices in computing. How did the mouse come to be the most common pointing device?

The mouse, that unlikely “blob of plastic” was the original idea of Doug Engelbart (pictured) who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. ARC also invented the first word processor, hypertext, and groupware – all of which were first demoed in 1968, 15 years before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa and 13 years before Xerox PARC introduced the Star, the ancestor of the modern personal computer.

The mouse became the pointing device of choice for ARC because it was proven, in user testing, to be the most efficient of all the devices tested. There was nothing elegant or particularly attractive about Engelbart’s mouse – he adopted it because it required less user-effort and was more precise than anything else they tested. Engelbart was not interested at all in ease-of-use; he was interested only in improving the efficiency with which humans interacted with computers.

The first mouse

Engelbart had ideas around human-computer interactions that he originally described in 1962 in his seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” This paper is the foundation of Engelbart’s philosophy on human-computer interaction and it led to the invention of the mouse, hypertext, windows, and groupware.

According to Engelbart, in order to achieve the best human-computer symbiosis – an objective that is central to his Augmenting Intellect philosophy – users need to be trained to use the most efficient computer artifacts (e.g. pointing devices, keyboards, etc.). Engelbart did not believe that computers should be easy for novices to use; he believed that people would require lengthy training in order to be truly effective. Specifically, he wanted computer interactions to be based on systems that, with considerable training, were the most efficient – not the easiest to use.

Engelbart 's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. The keyboard had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. It was based on chords, sort of like a guitar, where pressing combinations of buttons output certain characters."    (Continued via VIRTUALIZATION JOURNAL, Richard Monson-Haefel)    [Usability Resources]

First Mouse - Usability, User Interface Design

First Mouse

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