Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Jakob Neilsen Has Been Using Computers for Thirty Years

[ Note to the reader: I actually posted this entry some time ago back before I was working with movable type. I feel many of those entries weren’t particularly dated and are worth salvaging, so I am inserting them into Banapana on occasion ] Jakob Neilsen has posted this article at Builder AU discussing his experience with computers, his personal work towards improving usability, and what we might expect from computers by 2034. As a designer I’ve always considered the word usability a little bit dirty. As if saying that you are going to design something should imply that you don’t necessarily want anyone to be able to use it. Design should be enough. Unfortunately, I also understand that more often than not designers allow their verve for aesthetics get in the way of function. And having people like Neilsen around to remind us that design should be about the end-user is not such a bad thing.

Unfortunately this article amounts to little more that vague speculation as to what computers will be able to do if Moore’s “Law”[1] (and other “laws”) continue to progress. The most relevant point that he makes though is that before we hit some sort of shelf in processing power we are far more likely to hit a shelf in our programming prowess. Most programs are old and have been jury rigged in so many ways that their bulk more often than not makes up the difference in processing power and memory space. I’m not sure how big Word is these days, but I feel assured that it’s bigger than a word processor needs to be and does a lot more than a word processor needs to.

It would seem like a real shift in the motives behind program design is in order (did someone say Open Source?). Unfortunately the current motive behind creating most software is (1) make money and (2) make more money selling the same thing repeatedly with incremental “improvements” in features, increase in size and an incremental reduction in speed. Until the motivation changes somehow it seems that we will be stuck with bulky programs that don’t seem to be getting any smarter. I’m talking mostly about commercial software, of course. Some “software” like Google doesn’t seem to have suffered much from feature creep and has actually improved in terms of the content and speed.

Overall, Neilsen is on the track with usability. Computers need to be more accessible and smarter. There’s no question about that. For all our concern with processing power, we (programmers and designers) need to realize that there is probably a lot more we can do with what we already have and that’s really the only way any real improvement in software, web sites, etc. are going to occur.

[1] Is it just me or shouldn’t the law in Moore’s “Law” always be put in quotes. It has always seemed a little silly to call an observation a law when it’s based purely on inductive reasoning. Computers processing power has always doubled, so it will always double. I guess we’ll see.

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