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Computing

Let My Computer Serve Me!

Forget the multimedia distractions. Computer developers should strive for simplicity, eas of use, and machines that are “people-aware.”

I’m just back from the world economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where besides Hillary and a few hundred ministers and prime ministers, there were also some 1,500 CEOs representing $4 trillion of gross revenue-among them the leaders of nearly every computer, software, and communications company, including Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison. In a session I chaired among these executives, we sought to determine the top issues ahead for the developers of information technology. At the top of the list: Ease of use.

Ease of use-a term I much prefer to “user friendly”-is one of several important issues at the junction of our technology and our humanity that we will explore in this new column.

A machine would be simplest to use if it were intelligent. Never mind if it is swelling with multimedia and colorful three-dimensional animals floating in space. Just give me a keyboard with an impact printer that understands me as well as my human assistant does, and I’ll throw away all the fancy hardware and software. Well, that’s impossible today and it will be in the near future, at least for the kind of general intelligence we call common sense. We don’t know how to do it in practice or in the lab (which precedes practice by a decade).

We can, however, make our systems more intelligent by specializing them into particular, narrow contexts. In fact, it’s scandalous that we haven’t done so yet. In the industrial era we gave different tools to different workers-doctors, mechanics, plumbers, gardeners-but in the information age we are trudging along with the same word processor, spreadsheet program, database, and graphics editor for musicians, accountants, engineers, and lawyers! This mindless generality must give way to greater specialization among the different human interests and professions. With the right tool, it will be easier to get the job done.

Following specialization, we need to create interfaces tailored to humans. People are not born with keyboard sockets or mice attached to their bodies. Instead, we use our mouths and ears. Why not engage our machines with the same natural human interfaces? Speech-understanding technology has come a long way since researchers began prematurely touting its capabilities. A few useful systems are already commercially available.

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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Computing

From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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