Conforming to the Machine

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 2000

The old man had never seen a computer up close before. As countless other first-time computer users had done before him, he picked up the mouse, pointed it at the monitor, and clicked.

The hundred computer executives, researchers, and marketers who were watching him laughed out loud. Some of the well-dressed executives even turned red and got tears in their eyes. The poor old guy was approaching a new technology in the most natural way he knew how. But because he didn’t conform to the machine’s needs, he became the object of ridicule.

I won’t mention the name of the company where this horrific display took place, because it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people in the technology business make this same, stupid mistake. Their own insecurity and lack of knowledge about how computers work leads them to laugh at anyone who is even less new-media-literate than they are. It’s a way of feeling experienced, and “with it.”

It’s also a way of missing out on perhaps the only meaningful information one can derive from such “user testing” – namely, how people naturally respond to technologies and interfaces.

Were any of the assembled researchers confident enough in their own relationship to technology to take notice, they would have marveled at their test subject’s steadfast belief in the ability of the computer mouse to function like a television remote control. In fact, if a majority of people confronting a mouse for the first time really do attempt to use it in this fashion, might there not be an interface idea in there, somewhere? Is there any logic in developing, or at least testing, a mouse that points directly at the screen? No, let’s not even consider that. We made the adjustment to mouse-thinking, so the old man must do so, too. It’s part of the pain of initiation.

I’m not arguing for a new kind of mouse, here, but a new way of understanding how to approach the interface between humans and their machines. It’s not a matter of figuring out how to get people to conform to the technologies we’ve already developed. The people who succeed in the device-driven networking economy of the future will be those who create applications, interfaces, and designs that conform to human need and expectation. The businesses that continue to work on strategies for “getting people to do this,” or “figuring out how to make people do that” will fail as surely as WebTV.

The trick here is to put ourselves back onto the human side of the cybernetic equation. What does a person naturally do with a device in a certain environment? What do people need in airports, for example, in their cars, at their desks, or in their living rooms? Rather than struggling to bring people to technology, figure out how to bring technology to people. Instead of turning the old man into a proper mouse-user, turn the mouse into a proper remote control! After all, the technology is supposed to be serving the people – not the other way around.

Get it, businesspeople? You say you do, but I don’t believe you – not given what’s taking place on cell phones right now. Or on the World Wide Web, for that matter. Most companies in these spaces are ignoring the way in which people actually use these technologies.

Consider something as simple as the size of devices - what we could call their “scale.” More enlightened user-experience research companies, like Creative Good here in New York , have broken down technologies into three major groups: inch devices, foot devices, and yard devices. Each scale of device has a most natural set of uses.

An inch device, like a cell phone’s WAP interface or a Palm device, is pretty much like a Post-It note. We use it to retrieve a note or record one that we’ll use later. We hold it in one hand and enter text with another, and we use it in a public environment, for as short a time as possible.

A foot device, like a computer, is where we work with the information we may have recorded on the inch device. It’s where we’ll actually manipulate our database of contacts, or write the article using the names of user-testing companies we gathered on the Palm.

Yard devices, like televisions and video projectors, are used to present or collaborate about this information with others.

Obvious? So then why are wireless companies attempting to shrink the Web, through WAP, onto tiny cell phone screens? Don’t they know the Web was designed for the foot-scaled computer screen, and not a two-line text-only inch device? Apparently not, which is why anyone who has attempted to do what one might actually want to do through the Internet on a cell phone – like check email or a stock quote – is suffering through dozens of keystrokes and nested screens rather than the simplicity of true inch-scale interfaces, such as those on Palm or Rim devices.

It’s the same sort of mistake that dozens of streaming media companies have made: believing that the computer screen is a proper place to watch feature length movies. They are mistakenly broadcasting yard-scale media through a foot device. That’s why they’re all going out of business.

This is not rocket science. It’s merely a subtle shift in how to think about making new media decisions. Bring your technology to the human being, and not the other way around.