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Step 4-Back to the Drawing Board

Spend some time with human-factors experts and you begin to understand the tendency of research engineers not to listen to them. Engineers often get excited about what they can build, whether or not it’s useful or usable. But human-factors experts are suggesting a more restrained approach, one that acknowledges our human needs and limitations first, before coming up with the innovations.

Which leads to some harsh conclusions: That in spite of an industry-wide assumption that pen-based computing is in our future, humans seem hellbent on being able to type a key and be certain of a result. That in spite of the obvious appeal of speech recognition, we’re still going to prefer typing to that, too, until voice-activated technologies are just as trustworthy. That for all the hype about wireless delivery of broadband content, there’s little evidence that users will suddenly want such material.

In trying to make gizmos that have a shot at becoming as popular as today’s cell phones or PDAs, human-factors engineers have their work cut out for them. They will need to make their products small yet powerful; light yet durable; able to perform multiple functions but without burdening us with undue complexity. Most current designs treat these demands as contradictory-how can a device be both multifunctional and easy to use? Or small and powerful? Or portable and durable? But designs like the Ideo laptop and the Handspring Treo go a long way toward proving that it’s possible to give people everything they want, given proper attention to usability.

In the last few years we’ve already seen many technologically sophisticated, hard-to-use gizmos fail. Once there was the Modo, a keychain-sized device that displayed information about restaurants on a tiny screen. No one bought Modos, and the company ceased production in October 2000. 3Com built Audrey, a digital organizer for the masses, which swiftly tanked. Whole subgenres of gizmos, such as portable Internet radios, have virtually disappeared. Each device failed because it offered a solution to a problem that wasn’t there.
If those who propose a human-centered design approach are correct, we’re about to see a whole new wave of product failures. But we’re also about to see some quiet but life-changing successes-devices that give us what we need and that make our lives easier. Focusing on the things people will want to carry, rather than what we’re able to build in a research lab, doesn’t mean that engineers will have to stop being inventive. It just means they’ll need to start thinking more about what people want-before deciding what to invent.

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