FreshMeat #12: Why The Cleaning Lady Won’t Do Windows

FreshMeat #12 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat is Fresh and FreshMeat is Meat. FreshMeat!
Ease-of-use is all well and good – but for whom?

Recently I had dinner with two friends during which we
discussed technology and (without ever using the label)

Ronald and Maria are both professionals, both knowledge
workers. Each of them use a computer for their daily tasks.
They send email, look up stuff on the web, send silly
e-postcards, they each know the difference between “reply”
and “reply-to-all” (and how and when to use each).
But they are coming at this from totally different

Ronald is employed by the public works department of a
large municipality. When he looks down the street, he sees
the buildings, but he also sees the infrastructure that
lies beneath. It’s like he’s got X-ray specs that show
everything in cutaway view. He understands the systems that
work inside buildings to move air, water, and power in and
out. He understands the systems that work across
neighborhoods to aggregate those flows to and from various
installations that most people walk by without ever seeing.

In a similar fashion, Ronald can detect car problems
without opening the hood. He can look at the guts of an
automotive system, find the problem, and fix it.

Obviously, his ability to see and understand the workings
of these different technologies is related. There’s a
similar core of mechanistic logic between them.

Maria is completing her second graduate degree. She knows
how to operate (and interpret the results of) a large
variety of laboratory equipment, including DNA sequencing

While she’s unlikely to install new software or reconfigure
the system settings on her PC, she’s comfortable with most
consumer electronics. She sets the clock on the VCR, and
sets it to record her favorite shows. She is the one who
changes the message on their home voice mail, and Maria
will be the first one to buy a mobile phone. When they
travel, Maria gets on the web to comparison shop and book
the trip.

But don’t ask her to upgrade the electrical service in the
house, or to change the oil in her car. Those worlds are
totally foreign to her.

Ronald’s reluctant use of interactive devices is much the
same, but he doesn’t have the luxury of avoiding them. It
is part of everyday life.

At one point, the world of interface was meant to simplify
things for everyone, to add a layer of abstraction to messy
technology. In time, that layer of abstraction has become
its own technology. Buttons that change modes, check boxes
that indicate status, auditory feedback, pop-up windows,
error messages, dialog boxes, scroll bars, pressing 9 to
repeat the options. It’s a technology.

Maria can use that technology because learning on one
device is somewhat leveragable (at a pure UI level, no, of
course not – everything works differently, but at a higher
level, the level of this language of abstraction, the core
ideas remain the same – it’s about widgets). The language
of technology that Ronald is fluent in – the language of
infrastructure – is useless. Infrastructure is the ultimate
in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

So where do we net out here? The metaphors of interface are
abstractions of real technologies. With their
proliferation, they have become their own form of
technology, apart from the electronic guts they were meant
to hide. Users who get on board and learn the language of
interface-as-technology will thrive. Users who bring other
languages to the table are asked to start over again if
they want in.


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