The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

IS TECH INHERENTLY USER-UNFRIENDLY?
Depending on where you trace its beginnings--the radio? the television? the personal computer?--consumer electronics have been around for around half a century. Yet even after all that time, devising devices that are fully-functional and user-friendly continues to be a challenge for the industry.

I wonder if it's not as simple as aging, where once you reach a certain point, you just can't pick up the mental acrobatics it requires to personaly interface with the latest and greatest tech products. We know that, for instance, past a certain age, it's increasingly difficult to pick up a foreign language; maybe it's the same with technological adeptness. As this article notes, we're not talking about morons here: People with advanced degrees in computer science and who run consulting practices for technological usage should be able to handle today's gadgets without much problem. Instead, they have to get their teenaged relatives to figure it out for them.

This issue comes up more and more often. The recent announcement of the NBOR software is a direct result of this widespread discomfort with digital/computerized devices (and, no doubt, NBOR wouldn't have gotten the attention it did if it weren't for that highly-relatable angle to their story). Even two years ago, Sun and Microsoft were making noise about a "recommitment" to user-friendliness.

I have a feeling that the tech industry, and the culture of engineers, programmers and the like that reside within it, have an ingrained opposition to making their products too easy to figure out. A big part of this subculture is defined by being outsiders, disengaged from the average person, partly as a reaction to initial rejection. So they pride themselves on coming up with things that others just wouldn't understand. This is precisely why I think the increasing moves of traditional computer companies into consumer electronics is destined to fail, if it ever really takes off, because the tech industry's culture just can't handle it. Dell and Gateway and the like will waste a lot of resources and effort toward making a television monitor that will require a user to dive through 15 different submenus just to turn the damned thing on.

As tech products become increasingly integral to everyday life, this attitude will have to change; I'm thinking that will only happen with a new sort of tech company, committed to established principles of consumer-oriented industrial design, takes the stage and puts the Microsofts and Dells out of business. I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet.