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Designing Really Smart Computers

Sometimes I wonder if we are so enamored of technology and of our abilities to manipulate it that we are simply incapable of making sensible judgments about it.

I must begin by confessing that I do not love technology. I am not a toy person. It is not the gadgets that thrill me, but what I can do with them to make myself a more productive, more knowledgeable, or more interesting person. Anything that gets in the way of what I am really trying to accomplish at any given moment just annoys me.

This may be why I just do not get excited every time another feature-bloated piece of software comes on the market. Most of the time I would rather have an application that does a few things really well than some mammoth megabyte monster that does everything at the ultimate level of complexity.

Sometimes I think that the developers believe that if they keep us busy trying to figure out how to use the next new thing, we will not have time to realize that we expect far less of our computing technologies in term of ease-of-use than we do of just about any other technology in our lives,

I remember a lecture given by Bill Buxton at ACM 1 during which he compared his experiences in the public restrooms of the airport to his experiences with his office computer. Why, he mused, was a toilet in Chicago, with whom he had no previous relationship, capable of acknowledging his entry into and exit from the room and of taking the appropriate action, while his office computer, with whom he communed several hours each day, was incapable of any such thing?

Maybe as teachers responsible for educating the next generation of people who will build the tools, we can start to change the way the we all look at and use computers. Maybe we can begin by encouraging even our best students to view technology with a critical eye, to think about designing from the user's perspective, to see the world's users as diverse and deserving of technology that truly makes their lives easier.

The field of Human-Computer Interaction is rich with questions and ideas that need to be explored. If we open this world up for our students, maybe we can begin to break down the geek tradition. If we encourage all of our students, especially those who would never dream that computer science is for them, to ponder the hard questions about ease-of-use and simplicity and elegance, maybe we can open the doors to new ways of thinking about, designing, and using technology. Maybe we can begin to build computer technology that is at least as smart as an airport toilet.


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