Oct 31 2011
People and Technology
I was one of those kids whose idea of fun was to take his Dad’s watch apart and then reassemble it – usually minus a few pieces that, annoyingly, refused to go back in. I enjoy using technology and I appreciate its benefits. But to me, technology “things” are fundamentally less important and far less interesting than the human dimension. In the next couple of blog posts, I’d like to share some thoughts about people and technology, starting with the all-important end user experience. Later, I’d like to talk about the people who provide technology solutions and support, and how our world is changing.
Let me start with an assertion that for the majority of the Cornell community the end-user’s experience with technology is at best inconsistent and at worst inadequate. That might sound pretty harsh, and I mean no offense by it. Indeed, I would venture to say that the same range of user experience is found in most colleges and universities. We don’t do a good job of making IT systems intuitive and easy to use, partly because we don’t pay sufficient attention to the essentials of good design. This basic observation is what led to the formation of the FLUID project.
I think we should demand a whole lot more from our campus technology experience. Given the nature of my role at Cornell, the primary responsibility to make these improvements – from inconsistent to respectable to excellent – lies with me.
A couple of simple examples might illustrate my point.
Like most people who are reading this, my family goes online to do our home banking. We do an increasing percentage of our shopping on the web, pay our bills, file our income taxes (at least, we could do that in Canada, I hope we can do it here too), renew prescriptions, you name it. From a user-experience perspective, if people can do their home banking on the web, they should be able to make sense of Cornell systems. At my previous institution I would occasionally ask whether I should be happy or worried if some number on a financial report was in parenthesis. I was told: it depends. I don’t want it to depend; I want it to be clear. I think most people do. Maybe that should be a principle to guide end-user experience at Cornell.
In our parents or grandparents generation, imagine a person’s disbelief if someone told them that one day they would be able to walk up to a wall, press some buttons, and cash would come out of a drawer. Today, everyone uses ATMs (no one warned grandma about hidden fees, either) but I have never met anyone who was required to take a three-day training course to learn how to use one. So here’s another principle I’ll suggest: if the average end-user needs training to use a system, the system is too hard to use. There are some understandable exceptions I think, like some of the deep and complex tool sets that technical staff often must use. But in general, people should just be able to figure stuff out.
I could go on, but I’d rather hear your ideas for usability principles. Try to resist the temptation to rant about a bad experience, unless it helps illustrate a principle for which you wish to advocate. If this is an area of conversation that resonates with people, we can also consider ways to put our ideas into action.