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More sophisticated ones offering information in specialized areas such as weather, navigating a city, or booking airline tickets have been implemented in the MIT Lab for Computer Science by Dr. Victor Zue and his research team. They comprehend some 90 percent of the queries uttered by normal people. When they make a mistake, the user catches it and restates the query, just as we do with people who don’t understand us the first time. Systems like these should be within commercial reach in five to seven years and should noticeably improve ease of use.

Adapting computer systems to human capabilities should be extended beyond specialization and speech to a greater awareness of what is important to people, rather than to machines: A new breed of people-aware systems would stand ready to handle our wishes, expressed in ways that are natural, even unconscious, for us. They would focus on human habits and mindsets as their predominant driving force and they would strive to shrink today’s considerable gap between human and product orientations. With such an attitude, designers would work hard at watching what users do and how they do it, through many successive prototypesbefore releasing their products.

Simplicity is another key to ease of use. I often hear the mantra that computers manage complex systems and are therefore inherently complex. Baloney! Humans have always simplified the world to understand it. We can begin by throwing away 90 percent of the features that come in today’s bloated software-most of which are intended to impress us and motivate us to buy. Software suppliers should strive to produce (and users should favor with their purchases) software that comes with the minimum number of features needed to get the job done.

There’s still more that can be done: We should not have to wait as long as we do today to get a response from our systems. And our computers should not crash as easily as they do. We have constructed telephone systems that seldom, if ever, crash, yet are made up of more complex software than our personal computer systems.

Both problems will recede as communications become faster and systems become more reliable in the next decade and beyond. We can also invent useful “languages” that blur the distinctions between programmers and users, as do spreadsheets and the Web’s HTML, so that people may easily customize systems to needs.

Doing these things is a tall order. But ease of use is not impossible-just difficult. So, designers and users alike: Let’s go after the top issue of the year. We can make a difference, starting now.

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