Sunday, July 27, 2008

Of Mice and iPods, or The Death of the Designer

Key designers in the computer industry ...

"Computing technologies are becoming so familiar it can feel as if they have always been here. It is strange to think that the mouse, for instance, was invented by Doug Englebart in the seventies. He must encounter a degree of incredulity when he mentions this to people. “You invented the mouse? Really? How nice. Did you also invent the pen?” Researchers in Interaction Design are very fond of illustrating tools we can take for granted with an example from the philosophy of Heidegger. Heidegger argued that the only time he really noticed his hammer was when it was broken, If it was working properly he thought about the nail he was hammering, not the tool he was using to do it. As someone who is extremely wary of fully functioning hammers I am as likely to be thinking of the possibility of hammering my thumb as a nail so the example never really works for me. The mouse on the other hand, well yes, when it’s working I take it entirely for granted. Tools that feel “natural” in this way are also slightly unquestionable. Thinking about its invention brings it back into focus as sharply as when it is clogged up with fluff and needs cleaning. Then it becomes once more a tool, a tool that was made relatively recently and which, come to that, might well be improved upon.

Bill Moggridge’s book “Designing Interactions” introduces its readers not only to the inventor of the mouse but also a host of the designers who have shaped personal computers into the forms we currently know. The book collects together interviews with the people who have worked in a field which, more than any other, has transformed the ways in which humans work and play. It describes, for instance, how twenty five years ago Bill Atkinson, coded prototypes that would come to define aspects of the desktop that I am using now. “In one night he developed the entire pull down menu system! Everything! He hadn’t just moved it to the top of the screen; he had the idea that as you scanned your mouse across the top each menu would pop down, and they would ruffle as you went back and forth” (Moggridge 2007:97). This is extraordinary, again the drop down file menu is as much a part of everyday life as pens and paper were for the most part of the industrial period. “So, you came up with A4 eh? Not a bad idea that. Everyone seems to like it don’t they?”

The designers of early computer interfaces were primarily concerned with measurable outcomes: how long did it take people to complete a task using this or that interface. Such questions could be investigated through observation and experiment so the design process was relatively transparent. Later innovations such as the new look of the MAC OS X are harder to quantify. Here designers were given advertising images of candy, alcohol and liquids which helped to inspire a new look and feel based on transparency and fluidity. Such moves from usability to user experience necessitate an engagement with aesthetics, enjoyment and fun. These are far less tangible and measurable than the dimensions of usability. How then are we to make sense of these vague and constantly changing requirements? What was it about the iPod, for example, that made it so special? If Apple know they are not telling."    (Continued via, Mark Blythe)    [Usability Resources]


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