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Step 1-Field Research

Jakob Nielsen is annoyed.

Norman’s partner in the Nielsen Norman Group has just finished giving a conference on user interface design. But what Nielsen believes to be the most important presentation-how to conduct field studies on human behavior-was presented to rows of empty seats. “Most people think of design as a debugging process,” he grumbles. “They think you come up with a product, then go ask people what’s wrong with it. To my way of thinking that’s exactly wrong. The best products are going to come out of following people around.”

Years of following people around has given Nielsen definite opinions about what people want. They want consistency, for example. To know that a given action will cause a predictable reaction-like ringing a doorbell or dialing a telephone number.

“That’s why pen-based computing has never taken off, and never will,” he says with a dismissive wave. “You have to check it all the time to see if it’s working. It’s also difficult to correct mistakes. It’s the same with voice recognition. It will take 20 years before voice recognition technology is reliable enough for people to want it.”
So what do people want? Andrew Odlyzko, a former AT&T Labs researcher who now directs the University of Minnesota’s Digital Technology Center, believes from his own studies of human interaction with digital things that people will always look to their wireless gizmos mainly for communication, not entertainment. “If we look at what most people will want [from wireless devices], it’s interaction with other people,” Odlyzko says. “That’s why cell phones are such a success.”

Nielsen, too, is upbeat about the usefulness of an integrated communications device-if designed correctly: something that would include voice and e-mail and instant messaging, combining all of Mr. Pugh’s gizmos into one neat package. Such a device would have as large a display as possible and eschew voice commands and pen-based computing for a simple qwerty keyboard. It would also include Global Positioning System capability, in order to give you what you need where and when you need it. “Say I need a taxi,” says Nielsen. “I pull out this device and can see where cabs are available and how long it will take them to get to my position. I call one by touching the screen. I don’t have to call five companies. I don’t have to tell them where I am. I don’t even have to stay where I am. The cab finds me.”

But Nielsen doubts that people will use these integrated devices to surf the Web when they’re away from home-another beloved concept among gizmo developers. “The average person will not,” he asserts. “The wireless connection will always be more expensive. The device will always be more cumbersome than what you have at home. And you’re not going to be in a nice office in front of a big color monitor-you’re going to be standing in the rain at a bus stop, paying by the packet.”

What will happen instead, Nielsen and Odlyzko predict, is that people will carry their entertainment in a specialized, nonwireless device, taking advantage of ever cheaper storage and ever more powerful processors. Yesterday’s Sony Walkman and today’s tiny MP3 players are harbingers of this trend. “The argument for getting content over the air is rather weak,” says Odlyzko. “It’s more likely that people will download information into their own, recordable device that they will carry with them and play when convenient.”

I come away from these conversations envisioning a future where we carry two primary gizmos, each used for very different reasons. (Add any additional gizmos, and we run into what Odlyzko warns will be a quagmire of competing devices that serve no useful function other than losing investors’ money.) The first gizmo, the one designers are focusing most of their attention on today, is our preferred communications device, the one that keeps us in touch. The second is our content-rich device, which allows us to carry our entertainment and even our computing power along with us. Neither function is particularly well served by existing products: cell phone and personal digital assistant screens are too ridiculously small, and laptops are too bulky and fragile. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement based on human-factors principles. “The key is to remember that people don’t want to fool with it,” Nielsen says. “They just want it to work. It’s a matter of getting things to work the way people think.”

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