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Beyond the Computer Industry

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As computer technologies increasingly invade everyday products, the risks of the traditional computer business must be revisited by each new industry, usually through failures. Issues include reliability of code, protection against component failure, security of data, privacy and security, safety, maintenance, and upkeep. There is one issue affecting all of these topics: ease of use. Poor usability leads to high support costs, high error rates, and increased injuries.

Consider the automobile, which is certainly a popular target for new technology. Usually driving does not require full concentration, but situations requiring full attention typically arise without warning. What might be a minor secondary task under normal driving conditions can suddenly become life-threatening.

In modern cars the number of controls in front of the driver has proliferated to an unacceptable extent. BMW addressed the complexity issue with its new iDrive Controller, available in the 7-Series sedan. Its solution was to replace most of the dashboard controls, knobs, and displays with a single knob and display screen. BMW states that "this user-friendly interface offers quick access to over 700 settings."

When one control does multiple operations, it requires a complex menu structure and choice of modes, which in turn promotes mode errors and other sources of error. It is best to have dedicated controls for critical functions, even at the expense of more buttons and knobs. Unfortunately, there is a design trade-off between simplicity in appearance and simplicity in use. This is a dangerous design trap. Alas, consumers (and organizations) make purchase decisions based on appearances more than reality; this is a fundamental conflict. But BMW did not have to choose between one knob and display screen or 720 separate controls; there are alternative designs between these extremes.

BMW's user interface has been soundly trashed in the press. Let us hope it pays heed and hires professionals from the Human-Computer Interaction community (for example, to help redesign its approach, from the initial assumptions upward; this cannot be fixed with a simple patch or new graphics.

A very different problem is one faced by hotels. Business travelers expect high-speed Internet access, but the Internet connection technologies make configuration overly difficult. Internet connections require setting numerous parameters. Worse, these change from location to location, ISP to ISP. My personal experience is that the installations seldom work completely at first. Although once connected it is possible to read email from POP servers, it is usually impossible to send without multiple telephone calls to ISPs to retrieve the SMTP information. SMTP was not designed with security in mind, so most ISPs will not send email from foreign sites, forcing the traveler to negotiate the morass of unknown ISP providers from hotel to hotel. It is time to advance from the current SMTP toward a new standard that allows one setting to work from any location, much as POP servers now allow.

Security is a major issue. A large number of intermediaries have arisen to increase security, including software firewalls, proxy servers, and VPNs. Most travelers and hotel staff are insufficiently knowledgeable to navigate through these roadblocks. And users who change their settings, successfully or not, face the daunting task of resetting them afterward.

Another problem area is the proliferation of services on telephone systems. About 20 years ago I suggested that the only solution was more dedicated buttons plus display screens to guide the operations in simple language. We now have more buttons and screens, but simple language still eludes many design teams, probably because the writing is seldom done by professional technical writers. Mobile phones complicate the story: as the number of functions increases, size and power constraints leave little room for more buttons or larger screens.

As computer technologies migrate to other industries, we face a growing challenge to promulgate appropriate human-centered development processes. More and more of the risks from technology come from deficient consideration of people, organizations, and cultures. But as computers pervade the fabric of all human activity, more emphasis is required. Otherwise, the existing known risks will simply proliferate beyond imagination.

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Donald A. Norman ( is a professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University and cofounder and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, Fremont, CA.

©2002 ACM  0002-0782/02/0700  $5.00

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