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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Ubiquitous Beauty of User-Aware Software


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While the information age has brought computing technology to work, home, and community, users and computers are still fundamentally unrelatedand sometimes adversarial. The next era will revolutionize how computers and users interact.

It is currently up to the user to assimilate many details of a new computer or software system, then adapt to its constraints. This has limited the penetration of computing among major segments of society. Common wisdom says the problem will be solved as new generations of users are exposed to computing from early childhood. The real solution, however, is software must become more responsive to humans in all their diversity.


User-aware software will be capable of learning about an individual and adapting itself accordingly.


The software interfaces we know today will be transformed so they can respond and adjust to each user. This user-aware software will be capable of learning about an individual and adapting itself accordingly. It will recognize the user in terms of how he or she uses the software and accommodate changes in those patterns over time. User-aware software will adjust the level of what it displays, the kinds of functionality available, and so on to the particular user's expertise and preferences.

How will that change the nature of computing? It means my software will take into account the fact that my vocabulary is different from other users. It will provide simple ways for me to replace terms and command names with the ones that make most sense to me. My software will know I use certain operations very frequently. Those are the ones that will be quickly available via buttons or one-word verbal commands. My software will know what level of expertise I have acquired and will offer automatic assistance when I'm ready to try something new.

My software will also know where I am at any time. It will be able to adjust to changes in my needs and activities as I move from work to home, or among any number of virtual environments. I won't have to create separate address books for professional contacts versus family members, or change file systems to move from business to personal finances. It will happen automatically whenever I arrive home. When I want to access home files from the office, I'll simply change my virtual location and my software will respond as though I had stepped through the front door. Software will also be able to adjust to environmental factors, such as ambient noise or lighting levels, and change behavior as needed. When used in a noisy restaurant, for example, my software will display messages on the screen rather than generating audioand I won't need to reconfigure anything myself!

User-aware software will change not just the way we interact with computers, but the way we think about them. Once software is truly personalized, many of the obstacles that currently limit when and how people use computers will disappear. It will be fast, convenient, and yes, even fun to use computers as they were intended all alongas tools to make our lives easier.

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Author

Cherri Pancake (pancake@cs.orst.edu) is a professor and Intel Faculty Fellow in the Computer Science Department at Oregon State University. She is also a member of Communications' Editorial Advisory Board.


Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


 

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