April 15, 2002

Lecture Zeros in On P.C. Usability

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Leonardo DaVinci never surfed the Internet. He never moved a mouse. He never even used a computer. However, in Ben Shneiderman’s lecture “Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computer,” the fifteenth century Renaissance man was resurrected as a symbol of the synergy between human needs and computer technology.

“If [Leonardo] were alive today, he would have been a usability tester,” said Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland to the packed audience in Olin Hall.

Presented by the Cornell Student Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), Shneiderman was the second of two lecturers Friday to explore the interaction between human necessities and software design. Using Leonardo as his starting point, Shneiderman, who is presently completing a book with the same title, discussed the failure of programmers to sufficiently address issues such as usability, universality and usefulness in creating applications.

“We are stuck in a paradigm that is not working as well as it might,” Shneiderman said. “We need to find a connection between technology and human values.”

According to Shneiderman, computer science must shift its focus from the capabilities of computers to the capabilities of human beings. In his current research, based on observations of approximately 100 people, Shneiderman found that 45 percent of all time spent working with computers is wasted.

“The level of confusion, frustration and failure is far too high,” he said. “Just look at the number of crashes, failed installations, viruses and spams we encounter in everyday use.”

“We need to be banging on the table and getting angry about the systems that we’re getting,” he added, noting the role of public pressure in forcing improvements in software.

Shneiderman also spoke of the importance of accommodating disabled users and making computer technology more widely accessible.

Jenny Preece, who preceded Shneiderman, touched on similar themes in her discussion of usability and sociability needs in building online communities. Preece, professor and chair of information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, used examples ranging from bulletin boards to instant messenger services in order to demonstrate the effect of software design on building and sustaining relationships over the Internet.

“Anyone who has cooked in a kitchen with a poor design can relate to the value of a successful or unsuccessful design,” Preece said. “Software designers can influence the way people behave in these online communities for the good through the design of the software and the support for social processes we give.”

In her research on patient support communities on the Internet, which included a bulletin board about knee surgery, Preece found that individuals in online communities have a large capacity for empathy and compassion toward other users. A surprisingly large percentage of the posts she studied in support communities were empathic in nature, rather than informational or narrative.

“You notice that people are very eager to support each other and there is a very strong bond between them,” she said.

By establishing formal behavior policies, keeping content current, and improving navigation mechanisms, programmers can improve the sociability of online communities, according to Preece.

Brooke Foucault ’01, a current graduate student doing research on computer-human interaction (CHI) and co-founder and president of SIGCHI said that Shneiderman and Preece were chosen due to their preeminence in the field and their great contributions to CHI literature.

“Both of them covered the spectrum across CHI issues,” said Prof. Geri Gay, communication, and information science and director of the CHI group. “To me, a lot of this is about communication and social issues online and [Shneiderman and Preece] are folding good research into improving the Internet.”

Archived article by Jason Leff