February 12, 2007 4:00 AM PST

The human factor in gadget, Web design

Wonder why YouTube skyrocketed in popularity in less than two years?

One obvious reason is that the video-sharing Web site has kept it simple. YouTube doesn't require a video player download or a special account just to watch a video. With just a click on a link, a video is up and running in a few seconds. It's a people-friendly design, and that attention to simplicity has paid off.

User design

Experts in the field of so-called human-computer interaction, however, say good design like the YouTube interface is the exception, not the rule. For every slick Apple iPod, there are a dozen washing machines with a baffling array of buttons. And for every simple TiVo interface, there are umpteen TV remote controls that look like something out of NASA's Mission Control.

Now companies, universities and even government agencies like NASA are investing time and dollars as they take a hard look at how people interact with technology.

"Design is starting to change who succeeds and who fails," said Alonso Vera, a senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center who's also a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. "A few years ago that wasn't true. If I had a better algorithm, I would win," he said.

Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert and partner in the design consulting firm the Nielsen Norman Group, said when he started in the field in 1983, he had only a few hundred peers around the world--all considered "weirdos," he joked. Now, there are several thousands experts, and he's constantly meeting new specialists at major corporations.

Not surprisingly, high-tech companies are bringing in human-computer interaction experts as well. Google has a team of about 50 and regularly hires students out of CMU's human-computer interaction department. And there are growing teams at Intuit, Oracle and IBM. In the '90s, Microsoft started building a user design team that now includes roughly 500 people, industry experts say.

"Design is starting to change who succeeds and who fails. A few years ago that wasn't true. If I had a better algorithm, I would win."
--Alonso Vera, senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center

NASA, which has faced cutbacks in recent years, has a human-computer interaction group that's grown to 10 people since it was started in 2002. It recently worked with Google and the Firefox browser team on a new iteration of Firefox. NASA used its cognitive modeling tools--or computer algorithms that simulate how people will respond to new products--to help Firefox and Google develop more intuitive browser tabs.

NASA's Vera has also worked on new design for the Mars rover expedition, creating a better interface for scientists programming the daily activities of the rover. It used to take the scientists 90 minutes to plan the rover's activities, but Vera's design team cut the process down to just 10 minutes. Its latest design for the Phoenix rover, which will launch in July, cuts the routine time to three minutes, according to Vera.

Undergraduate and graduate computing programs are also answering the demand. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, said in an interview late last year that the ubiquity of the Internet, along with the globalization of technology industry, has prompted the need for a new generation of engineers with broader skills. In recent years, Berkeley's school began requiring engineering students to learn human-computer interaction skills.

"U.S. engineers need a broader training than simply programming and engineering. They increasingly need to have an understanding of working with multicultural teams and being able to understand the social components of the products," Saxenian said. "We believe those types of people will add the most value in the coming decades."

John Maeda, a computer scientist at MIT's Media Lab, agrees there's "a need for hybrid people, who can put together a mean car and pimp it out, too. This is the holy grail of this new generation. Schools are changing slowly to adopt this model of education."

What is user design?
The fundamentals of user design boil down to understanding the capabilities, limitations and desires of humans. Dialog boxes that pop up on the desktop and then disappear before giving the person enough time to read them could be an example of bad user design.

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research scientist, scientist, Web design, expert, YouTube

7 comments

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Interested in interaction design? read this
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Interactions-Bill-Moggridge/dp/0262134748/sr=8-1/qid=1171292703/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-9998220-3997618?ie=UTF8&#38;s=books" target="_newWindow">http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Interactions-Bill-Moggridge/dp/0262134748/sr=8-1/qid=1171292703/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-9998220-3997618?ie=UTF8&#38;s=books</a>

Great book filled with interviews of some of the brains behind the Palm Pilot, iPod and more.
Posted by Lite Rocker (42 comments )
Reply Link Flag
YouTube Succeeds for Another Reason
YouTube certainly succeeds for the reason cited in the article--because it simply works. All too often I click on a video link to have something start, then to get an error (this version of whatever not supported, you require this software, etc). I don't even bother at that point.

But, there's a second, even more important reason that YouTube succeeds: Because what they're providing on video is SUITED for video. It's not the video representation of information that's better gleened from the written word. All too often websites try to adapt TV footage to the web when a couple written paragraphs would provide all the information the viewer wishes, and within the 30-seconds he's willing to devote to the subject before he moves on to something more attractive. Video doesn't allow for quick scanning--You must commit to the entire footage, or risk missing what you seek.

--mark d.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.summitpost.org/user_page.php" target="_newWindow">http://www.summitpost.org/user_page.php</a>
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Interaction Design
I'm a human factors consultant, and I believe there are basically
three universal problems with electronic products: modes,
convoluted logic, and hidden functions. Modes are when a
control does different things in different device states; think of
the remote control POWER button that turns OFF the TV when
you try to turn ON the DVD player. Convoluted logic is when you
have to follow a sequence of hard-to-remember steps in order
to accomplish something. This was the typical VCR
programming problem. An example of a hidden function is when
the POWER button for a car radio switches power between the
radio and CD player when pressed momentarily and only actually
turns power off to the unit when pressed and held. All are
strategies used to access more product features with limited
control space; instead of a one-to-one mapping between
controls and functions, there may be fifteen controls and fifty
functions. I believe that the only way around the problem of
increased user complexity with an increasing number of
functions is the application of appropriate functional metaphors
- make the product work like the user thinks, so the user
doesn't have to learn how the product works. This is backed up
by research that suggests that Americans typically return a
product as defective if they can't get it to work within about
twenty minutes, and about half of all product returns are due to
this reason.

Victor Riley
User Interaction Research and Design, Inc.
Posted by vriley (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Shameless (though topical) plug
bMuze.com is currently doing to music what YouTube is doing to video--easy to upload, share, and play (yes, i am associated with bMuze.com so of course i think it is great).

but to the larger point, so much of the web is designed to make things *harder* for people--as an example, it took my wife four tries to get the Capchta right to sign up for digg.com (capchta's are those graphical squiggly things of text that are used to see if you are really human or not). these types of steps, along with needing to fill out forms detailing everything about your life to even participate in an discussion are getting a tad out of hand.
Posted by jeremy.pickett (5 comments )
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which humans?
Touting the ipod and palm pilot as the be-all and end-all in human factor design misses something that todays marketers keep trying to avoid - the entire world is not made up of 15-30 year old males. Women outnember men in the population, and control more of the wealth. And boomers are still around, still have a lot of disposable income, and, if the the government social security statistics are to be heeded, outnumber the "new" generation. The Wii is doing as well as it is partly because girls and women love the intuitive interface. My 27 year old daughter HAD to have one, and her 54 year old mother plays with her. And Nintendo didn't insult us by making it pink. I programmed my first computer using punch cards over 30 years ago. And now that I wear bifocals I'm not going to stop using them - but I'll spend my money on what works for me, not for the annoying brat next door.
Technology is not an end in itself. It exists as a tool to make my life easier. When it fails to do that I spend my money on something else that does work for me. And eventually the brat next door will grow up and realize the same thing.
Posted by debll (9 comments )
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That was an interesting read
As one Canada's largest consulting firms in human factors we can certaintly relate to the recent rise in awareness and acceptance of our field in the business world. Even in the relatively short time (6 years) Maskery has been around we find ourselves more often in the situation where we are explaining how we do human factors rather than what it is.

Companies now seem to more clearly understand the direct business benefits or understanding the importance of optimizing the interaction between people and technology. And at least now we know why its still so difficult to find highly trained experts in the field - Google and Nasa are taking them all :-).
Posted by teddevg (1 comment )
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The human factor in gadget, Web design
Quote " In the '90s, Microsoft started building a user design team
that now includes roughly 500 people, industry experts say."

If this is the true then every criticism everyone has ever said of
Microsoft and it's software &#38; hardware is true.

500 people that are inept at their job.
Posted by mozart11 (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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