Response Paper No. 7

On my way out of the QU gym today, I stopped by a vending machine to find something sweet and heavily caffeinated to fend off the hunger pangs while I hunkered down to write this in the library. The machine in question is one of those deals with a glass window in the front, behind which rows of bottled soft drinks — including the Diet Mountain Dew for which I’d been feening — wait their turn down the chute. Accompanying each selection is an alphanumeric code (A1, A2 … BI, B2 … and so forth) to be punched into the keypad to dispense the product.

I inserted the money, tapped in the code and after a second or two the trap released and down tumbled a bright green bottle of … Schweppes Ginger Ale. I should mention here that Schweppes Ginger Ale is not a diet drink and, worse, it says in block letters right on the label: “CAFFEINE FREE”.

Turns out, I’d misread the labels below the bottles, which were on the bottom row (about knee level), in relatively small print, and difficult to read from such an awkward angle. I’d accidentally selected an adjacent soft drink, also bottled in bright green.

This is the sort of error my grandmother never would have made — not with the princely sum of $1.45 riding on her actions. She grew up during the Depression, and the idea of wasting money through carelessness was quite simply anathema to her. She’d have read the directions, twice, knelt down to be sure of her selection and, muttering the alphanumeric code to herself, opened her coin purse and counted out exact change.

In “Don’t Make Me Think” (2000), Steve Krug assures us that, notwithstanding what Grandma might say, the villain in my case was poor design — important information that the consumer needed to use the machine properly was inadequately displayed. It is not enough to design something so that a consumer can use it easily after spending a moment or two studying it. “Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take the time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through” (Krug 2000, p. 26). This holds as true with soda machines as it does with Web sites, which was Krug’s subject.

According to Krug, anything on a Web site that gives a reader pause, causes her to stop and think — anything whose function is not completely apparent at first glance —serves to squander “the limited reservoir of patience and goodwill that each user brings to a new site” (2000, p. 37).

This is something of a departure from Grandma’s day, when product design was often dictated more by what possible for the manufacturer, rather than covenient to the user. The consumer was expected to invest the time into learning how to use and take care of the product, whether it was a car or radio or electric razor. In contrast, modern design is user-centered — particularly Web design, a field in which perfectly functional and utile products are analyzed and scrutinized for any flaw or ambiguity that might cause the user to click on the wrong link (Battleson, Booth et. al., 2001). According to Krug, today’s consumers are hurried and impatient, and we’re prone to making snap decisions before the facts are in. We expect things to be obvious and easy to use and are unwilling to invest the time to figure it out.

Grandma, bless her soul, would have said we’re all spoiled rotten. And she’d have been right.

Let me digress for a moment. My friend Wayne Cutler asked several weeks ago what this program is all about, and, among the other things that popped out of my mouth in response, I mentioned something about how technology is changing the way we interact and even think. Wayne, a proud Luddite with an unusually acute bullshit detector, stopped me there. “Do you really think technology is changing the way people think?”

I wasn’t prepared to be challenged on that point and didn’t have a good answer. I should have pointed out that there is ample precedent for this — for example people living in preliterate societies were capable of incredible (by modern standards) feats of memorization that allowed them to pass down oral histories and poems.

I see a modern parallel in “Digital Memories in an Era of Ubiquitous Computing and Abundant Storage” (Czerwinski, Gage et. al, 2006). They envision a convergence of technologies that in the near future will allow people to create multimedia records of even the most mundane aspects of their daily lives, stored in searchable archives and retrievable by punching in a few keywords or data points. It seems likely that our grandchildren will have little reason to expend mental energy on remembering and tracking the minor details of their lives. (Who bothers to remember phone numbers any more?)

Grandma would call that spoiled, too. But then again, she expected everyone to live by her own Victorian-era standards, which were getting a little moldy even in her day. No doubt the storytellers who painstakingly passed on the stories of Gilgamesh before they were written down would have felt modern scholars are spoiled and lazy because they have no need to memorize book-length poems word-for-word. Modern scholars have managed to rack up a pretty impressive track record of accomplishment despite (or just maybe because of) this.

So maybe it will be a good, or at least neutral, development if tomorrow’s consumers do not have to waste time and energy figuring out or thinking about the technology they use, or cluttering up their minds with mega- or gigabytes of phone numbers, appointments, contacts, and other mundane data. But it makes me wonder if future generations will become dependent on technology to the point they will be hard-pressed to function without it.

Works cited:

Battleson, B., Booth, A., & Weintrop, J. (2001) Usability Testing of an Academic Library Web Site: A Case Study. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27(3). pp. 188-198.

Krug, S. (2000). Don’t Make Me Think! Indianapolis: New Riders, pp. 11-39

Czerwinski, M., Gage, D., Gemmell, J., Marshall, C., Perez-Quinonesis, M., Skeels, M., & Catarct, T. (2006) Digital Memories in an Era of Ubiquitous Computing and Abundant Storage. Communications of the ACM, 49(1). 44-50.


4 responses to “Response Paper No. 7

  1. I think I’d agree with your grandma. Too much technology will make a lot of us mentally lazy. We would be spoiled. Why bother remembering anything – you’ve got the entire day recorded with a video camera embedded in your head.

    But what happens if the power goes out? We’d all be clueless.

    People should never depend on anything too much – technology included. Self-reliance, right?

    “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. ” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  2. Ah, perhaps you and your grandma have been getting into Phaedrus?

    Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

  3. Hell, Grandma used to chill with Phaedrus.

  4. Socrates must be the reason why Prof. H makes the final exam an oral exam. So we can have “the show of wisdom [WITH] the reality.”

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