Brilliant Technology Doesn’t Make Us Feel Stupid

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I spent yesterday organizing and digitizing parts of my overflowing collection of analog media I’ve collected over the years.

And I came face-to-face with many of the sad side-effects of technology-gone-wrong. Contained in those human-computer interactions were good examples of what happens when the technology designers and implementers have failed to grasp what the fundamental desires of its end-users are.

Elevation Dock Rises Above

But first I need to give credit to the article that clarified my realization of what frustrated me in these tasks. Digital Trends has written several articles on, but the one from last Thursday about the Elevation Dock nearing $1M in funding very nearly gets to the root reason for its amazingly overwhelming success (collecting nearly 20× the funding they set out for!)

The Elevation Dock is seeing success because it doesn’t offer something only a few people want, but something everyone wants—life to be a bit easier.

This is one of the key elements to successful technology—making technology easy. And it needs to be so easy that the users don’t notice that it’s not confusing or difficult. Things should just work, as if by magically reading your mind.

Elevation Lab designed something that is far more elegant and beautiful than any competing product—and told the story of its development in a wonderful series of posts that made you feel a part of the process, even if you were not a backer.

Actual backers really did influence the design, though. Because of the feedback, designers created a much more elegant (and surely more expensive to manufacture) way to get the USB cord out of the dock. So elegant they hid the custom jack and plug completely inside the dock in a way that surely has Steve Jobs smiling from up above.

The company let its passion for elegance and attention to detail create something that that pleased potential customers so perfectly that they received far more funding (and free press) than they ever could have imagined.

Contrast that to my experience scanning.

HP ScanJet 4670vp

I bought this HP ScanJet 4670vp scanner back in the Windows XP days, and have only occasionally used it. Its design is brilliant—a see-through lid actually contains the scanning head. This means that you can place it on whatever you are scanning (even if it is a hardcover book or a portion of a wall map—while it is still affixed to the wall—and see precisely what you will be scanning.

No more guessing if you have it aligned and rotated correctly. But the software interface makes me want to toss it out the window like a frisbee. (Because of this flexibility, though, I will keep a laptop running Windows XP as long as it lasts.)

But HP has not updated its drivers and software beyond compatibility with Vista,  so it is very much the orphan.

The HP Director toolbar is simple enough, and aids in specifying the desired scan action (Scan Picture/Scan Document/Make Copies/View & Print), but launches separate applications that stick around only long enough for one series of captures. This seems very logical from the programmer’s perspective, and allows them to customize the behavior of the scan capture application to the desired mode.

Use the software set to capture a mixed set of document types, however, and you quickly discover how painful and inefficient it is to use.

Making a first pass through a stack of photographs, I was presented with the same “would you like to scan another picture?” dialog box after each scan. I kept clicking “Yes”, but the consequences of the choice were not apparent until I had scanned a good dozen photos.

The first problem was that I saw no images at all in the output directory! Answering “Yes” to the query actually meant “keep the image you just scanned in memory, don’t write it to disk, don’t erase it from the screen, and don’t tell the user any of this”. Only when I had a hunch and answered “No” to the dialog did it save any of my scans to disk.

And then the scanning software quit, leaving me back at the HP Director toolbar. The next time I wanted to scan a photo, I had to wait for the software to load again. This might make sense to the programmer, but it actually tortures an already frustrated user with yet another pause, waiting for the computer to catch up.

When I decided to scan a multi-page magazine article, however, the scanning application behaved a little bit differently.

Now, the answer to the “would you like to scan another?” dialog box had a completely different meaning. This time, “Yes” meant “scan another page of the same document, and when the user finally says ‘no’, save all of this session’s scans as sequential pages in one PDF and perform OCR on them”.

Nothing about this process was easy or fast.

The combination of hardware and software allowed me to accomplish my task, but very slowly, and with a high level of frustration.

The elegance HP put into the hardware is nowhere to be found in the software, and that’s a shame, but not surprising.

The Lessons

That this scanner is no longer sold is beside the point. It serves mainly as an example of the dichotomy between elegant and cumbersome design. The lessons are still relevant with today’s generation of technology:

  1. Make the user’s task as easy as possible. So easy you make them smile instead of scowl.
  2. Make things happen as quickly as possible. Don’t shut down processes you know are going to be used repeatedly. Take full advantage of multiple cores and threads to mask any delays that your logical approach to software design tell you are necessary.
  3. Never, ever leave your users wondering what the next step is, or what will happen when they click on a button.
  4. Most importantly, eat your own dogfood!

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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