11, 2002 | The old man had never seen a computer up close
before. As countless other first-time computer users had done before
him, he picked up the mouse, pointed it at the monitor, and clicked.
The hundred computer executives, researchers, and marketers who
were watching him laughed out loud. Some of the well-dressed executives
even turned red and got tears in their eyes. The poor old guy was
approaching a new technology in the most natural way he knew how.
But because he didn't conform to the machine's needs, he became
the object of ridicule.
I won't mention the name of the company here this horrific display
took place, because it wasn't the first time I've seen people in
the technology business make this same, stupid mistake. Their own
insecurity and lack of knowledge about how computers work leads
them to laugh at anyone who is even less new-media-literate than
they are. It's a way of feeling experienced, and "with it."
It's also a way of missing out on perhaps the only meaningful
information one can derive from such "user testing" -- namely, how
people naturally respond to technologies and interfaces.
Were any of the assembled researchers confident enough in their
own relationship to technology to take notice, they would have marveled
at their test subject's steadfast belief in the ability of the computer
mouse to function like a television remote control. In fact, if
a majority of people confronting a mouse for the first time really
do attempt to use it in this fashion, might there not be an interface
idea in there, somewhere? Is there any logic in developing, or at
least testing, a mouse that points directly at the screen? No, let's
not even consider that. We made the adjustment to mouse-thinking,
so the old man must do so, too. It's part of the pain of initiation.
I'm not arguing for a new kind of mouse, here, but a new way of
understanding how to approach the interface between humans and their
machines. It's not a matter of figuring out how to get people to
conform to the technologies we've already developed. The people
who succeed in the device-driven networking economy of the future
will be those who create applications, interfaces, and designs that
conform to human need and expectation. The businesses that continue
to work on strategies for "getting people to do this," or "figuring
out how to make people do that" will fail as surely as WebTV.
The trick here is to put ourselves back onto the human side of
the cybernetic equation. What does a person naturally do with a
device in a certain environment? What do people need in airports,
for example, in their cars, at their desks, or in their living rooms?
Rather than struggling to bring people to technology, figure out
how to bring technology to people. Instead of turning the old man
into a proper mouse-user, turn the mouse into a proper remote control!
After all, the technology is supposed to be serving the people --
not the other way around.
Get it, businesspeople? You say you do, but I don't believe you
-- not given what's taking place on cell phones right now. Or on
the World Wide Web, for that matter. Most companies in these spaces
are ignoring the way in which people actually use these technologies.
Consider something as simple as the size of devices what we
could call their "scale." More enlightened user-experience research
companies, like Creative Good
here in New York , have broken down technologies into three
major groups: inch devices, foot devices, and yard devices. Each
scale of device has a most natural set of uses.
An inch device, like a cell phone's WAP interface or a Palm device,
is pretty much like a Post-It note. We use it to retrieve a note
or record one that we'll use later. We hold it in one hand and enter
text with another, and we use it in a public environment, for as
short a time as possible.
A foot device, like a computer, is where we work with the information
we may have recorded on the inch device. It's where we'll actually
manipulate our database of contacts, or write the article using
the names of user-testing companies we gathered on the Palm.
Yard devices, like televisions and video projectors, are used
to present or collaborate about this information with others.
Obvious? So then why are wireless companies attempting to shrink
the Web, through WAP, onto tiny cell phone screens? Don't they know
the Web was designed for the foot-scaled computer screen, and not
a two-line text-only inch device? Apparently not, which is why anyone
who has attempted to do what one might actually want to do through
the Internet on a cell phone -- like check email or a stock quote
-- is suffering through dozens of keystrokes and nested screens
rather than the simplicity of true inch-scale interfaces, such as
those on Palm or Rim devices.
It's the same sort of mistake that dozens of streaming media companies
have made: believing that the computer screen is a proper place
to watch feature length movies. They are mistakenly broadcasting
yard-scale media through a foot device. That's why they're all going
out of business.
This is not rocket science. It's merely a subtle shift in how
to think about making new media decisions. Bring your technology
to the human being, and not the other way around.
is the author of seven books on new media and popular culture
including Coercion, Cyberia,
the Future, and the novel Ecstasy
Club. His radio
commentaries air on NPR's "All Things Considered", and his
is distributed through New York Times Syndicate. Rushkoff lectures
about media, society and change, is professor of media culture
at New York University's Interactive
Telecommunications Program, an Advisor to the United Nations
Commission on World Culture, on the Board of Directors of the
Media Ecology Association, and a founding member of Technorealism.
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