The Age of Human Factors

Posted by Keith McMillan

February 13, 2008 | 2 Comments

Wired is over in Barcelona, covering the GSMA show. As you might expect, the news this week is all about cell phones, but Charlie Sorrel made some comments in his coverage that resonated:

Most apparent at the show, the biggest mobile conference in the western world, is that nobody is doing touch screens properly.

Sure, Apple didn’t invent touch screens, but it was arguably the first company to do it right. Sony Ericsson, no latecomers to the touch game, showed myriad new phones today, and of all of those we tried out, the UI was invariably clunky, counter-intuitive, or downright hard to navigate.

Flashy, animated icons are great, but not if they come at the expense of usability. It feels like everyone is scrambling to add touch capabilities because they feel they have to, ease-of-use be damned. The point of the iPhone is being missed: It’s a pleasure to use because of the fancy UI, designed from scratch to be intuitive, attractive and easy.

This struck a nerve with me. I recently spent a large chunk of time working with some folks who, to be brutally honest, didn’t know the difference between a flashy interface, and a beautiful and intuitive one. It’s very easy to mistake flashy for easy to use and intuitive, it seems. I’ve seen it done time and time again, and Charlie’s comments seem to reinforce that it’s even more common than I thought.

I’ve even been told of some products “It doesn’t have to work, it just has to look good.” This sort of extreme position, saying in effect “it’s okay if it’s garbage, so long as we can wrap it up pretty we can sell it” gives me heartburn. I take pride in my work, and I can’t really line up behind “it’s okay if it doesn’t work.”

I’ve begun to wonder if the proliferation of flashy is a question of capabilities: whether people recognize a attractive, clean, intuitive user interface such as the iPhone, and want desperately to emulate it. Unfortunately they don’t have the skill or training, and  do what they can, which results in flashy.

I know what I’m good at. There are a considerable number of skills I’ve honed in 20 years: mentoring, project management, software architecture, security, requirements, business analysis, development, testing, and a fair degree of psychology, frankly.

I know I’m not skilled in human factors, the study of making sure that our interactions with computers are as easy and intuitive as possible. I haven’t an artistic bone in my body it seems, as I’ve created some fugly interfaces in my time. I know the difference when I see it, I know when I’ve produced something ugly and hard to use, but not how to make it better. That’s why I need these skilled professionals to help me  fix it. It’s like not being able to reach an itch in the middle of your back.

Human factors is as much art as science, and I suspect it’s a pretty rare skill. I’ve only run into a handful of people truly who have it.  Sometimes it seems like Apple got all of them: maybe that’s where they all are.

Apple has a history of making a product that looks good and is intuitive: the Mac was the first commercially successful computer with a gui interface (way back in Windows 2 and GEM Desktop days, for those who remember those). Most PCs today are still beige boxes, while current Macs are attractive and functional. I still drool over the Mac Cube, frankly, and wonder why PCs are still stuck in the past.

And then we come to the iPhone and iPod. Wow. I think these devices really raise the ante for all of us. They’ve got beautiful, usable interfaces, which clearly others are trying to emulate. With Apple seemingly having hired all the people who are any good at human factors, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.

It’s nice to see devices like these, they’re a joy to look at and use, but as someone who produces software for a living, they’re a little intimidating. I realize the magnitude of the challenge they present to us as software professionals. We have to do much better at designing interfaces like these. The public will come to expect it, and will flock to those who can provide it.


RSS feed | Trackback URI


Comment by Peter H Coffin
2008-02-13 13:07:19

A big part of what Apple’s done as well, when making these nice interfaces, is provide the tools and libraries to make them usable and useful to programmers as well. That doesn’t mean that it’s not possible or even difficult to make a BAD interface on the parts a programmer constructs, but the parts that are provided by an OS and the interface guidelines Apple provides do point out a lot of the ways to make an application “play well with others” in terms of consistant use. It worked that way with Macintosh System stuff, then with Newton OS, and (presumably) will happen again if/when Apple gets around to authorizing (key term, perhaps) development kits for the iPhone as well.

Then again, maybe I’m just wishing for another Newton…

Comment by Keith McMillan
2008-02-13 13:41:04

Thank for your comments, Peter!

Apple’s SDK can provide us with some nice looking building blocks, but I don’t know that this keeps you from assembling some unusable mess from the parts, oh I wish it could.

I’ve not read Apple’s style guide, and it’s possible that being much more of a design oriented company, theirs is better than most. A style guide certainly helps, and can give you guidance to help you make your application more usable. I still think you need someone who can take that guidance and apply it to your unique application, in order to come out the other end with something elegant. I know I’m not that person, and I think they’re pretty rare, too.

Name (required)
E-mail (required - never shown publicly)
Your Comment (smaller size | larger size)
You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> in your comment.