PC or people--who's the boss?

Newly hired Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton sees big changes coming in how you and your computer interact.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
9 min read
Even though the days when computer-human interaction revolved around the C: prompt are far behind us, one legacy from that era remains.

Despite sundry advances in operating systems over the intervening two decades, it's still not entirely clear who's the boss: the human operator or the PC.

For the folks who helped usher in the C:-prompt era, it's a matter of high priority. That's one reason why Microsoft's research division just hired Bill Buxton, a designer and expert in human-machine interfaces.

Buxton will focus on software design issues that stem from the "society of devices" taking shape now. As more people begin to use mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) or cars and appliances with on-board computers, software makers have a whole new set of challenges not seen in PC software.

CNET News.com spoke to Buxton about the importance of getting design right in the emerging world of ubiquitous computing.

Q: You're now a senior researcher at Microsoft. Can you tell us what you'll be doing?
Buxton: The simple answer is to keep doing what I was doing for the last 30 years, which has been the direction of my research. Basically, it's how do you make technologies that have a positive impact and good experience on the people who use them? I mean that not just in the sense of individuals but even at a cultural level. There is some science behind that. How do we increase understanding on how to do that--or even understanding the impact of technology to make better decisions? The other part is the design part.

Microsoft obviously has very wide penetration in terms of their impact. But they're very conscious of the impact and wanting to do it better. There's always room for improvement. So they brought me to add to their arsenal of expertise to really do things well.

What do you think you'll be affecting, tangibly? Is it how people work with their PCs?
Buxton: The nature of our relationship to computer-based technologies is in a state of flux. To be honest, to a large extent the PC as we know it is in many ways a success story. But it's a story that is through the introduction. It's at a mature state now. And a lot of the dynamics will be in what comes in the future and our changing relationship with technologies.

The nature of our relationship to computer-based technologies is in a state of flux.

So let's just look at things like ubiquitous computing and (how do you) put them in a more manageable form--the things that we carry with us, whether we wear them or keep them in our pockets, and things like electronic whiteboards or signage or kiosks and so forth, those types of things.

It's like (looking at) the social relationship between my watch versus my phone versus the shop window that I'm walking by versus my car and how things layer together.

How do you think things will shape up?
Buxton: There are two possibilities here...In the best of worlds, this "society of devices" starts to complement one another and, in their collective selves, reduce the overall complexity that confronts you and me in terms of engaging in the world and going about out lives. And at the same time, (they) improve the experience.

Or it could go where these things create "Modern Times" on steroids, if you remember Charlie Chaplin, where it gets out of control. Nothing is given. One of my heroes is a historian of technologies, Melvin Kranzberg. He has this law that technology is not good; technology is not bad; nor is it neutral.

There's an increasing awareness that every time you introduce any technology into a society or culture, it will have an impact. Once you acknowledge that, then it behooves you to make your best effort to understand what that impact will be and design it to so that it's a positive contribution. And that doesn't happen by accident. That's where I fit in...Microsoft recognized this and wanted to increase their bench strength in that area.

In that ubiquitous computing scenario you were describing, what is the best we can expect as users? Will people be able to interact with multiple computing interfaces easily? If you look at PCs, it's not something people pick up quickly.
Buxton: If it's an effective design, it's possible to make the stuff transparent. That doesn't mean you are not using highly developed skills to do what you're doing. But the trick here is that effective design, generally whenever possible, is based upon highly learned skills, but skills learned through a lifetime of everyday living.

Think about the example of talking on a cell phone in the car. If you put your handset up to your ears while trying to dial, that's like putting lipstick on or eating a hamburger while you're trying to drive. I don't want to be next to you on the freeway.

The interesting thing is if you can throw a cell phone on a passenger seat, the phone rings, and the phone says to the stereo, "There's a call coming in. Can you turn the music down and can I borrow the speakers? And by the way, can I use the microphone embedded in the steering column?" Now you can just talk hands-free.

In that case, at least in the first approximation, talking to you on a cell phone interferes with my driving no more or no less than a person sitting on the seat.

The important thing is if this were done properly, the phone would automatically sense this by its physical location, and its behavior would change transparently. And when I got up out of the car, its behavior would change again.

It just shows that you can design so the behaviors become transparent. So instead of banning cell phones in the car, maybe we should be banning bad cars. It's not about talking in the car, not so much about cell phones. It's about design.

Obviously, computing is becoming more pervasive with the use of PDAs and embedded computing. What's the state of affairs in terms of interface design?
Buxton: We're going through some real growing pains. A friend (of mine) used the analogy of the frontier. We're going through a certain period of development where things haven't gotten settled or codified yet. It's a bit of mess, and there is some lawlessness and bad stuff out there. I'm certainly not satisfied with where we are right now.

What do you think can be improved?
Buxton: My personal bias is against the super appliance: the Cuisinart or Swiss Army knife approach to design.

I like back-country skiing. And the PDA that is most valuable to me, the one I bet my life on, is my avalanche beacon. It's a digital device; it's multimodal, collaborative. It's wireless. If you try putting a clock or calendar in that thing, it will be over my dead body literally.

These are extreme cases that we can learn from--if we can make these devices work well on their own in terms of basic functionality but in combination--this social relationship among appliances.

In some sense, I want to be a sociologist, to understand social relationships between electronic devices and us as a group, people.

How does the PC fit into this emerging world given its nature as a general-purpose device?
Buxton: I think the PC is here to stay. I think of other technologies relative to the PC a little by analogy to cinema, then television, then video games, etc. None of those things replaced live theater. They just helped us understand that things that didn't fit live theater now had a better outlet. Likewise, we found out that television wasn't the same as cinema. Video games were not the same as TV. And we found out the Internet wasn't the same as television. There are locations or social conventions that are wrapped around these things, both in terms of expectations and when you do them.

We'll see the same thing (with PCs and other devices). With some new appliances and devices coming out, some of what's causing problems with the PC by overloading it will be offloaded to more appropriate platforms that complement that PC. It's not going to go away, but its dominance as the primary channel with which we interact with computers will be lessened. It will find its proper place as opposed to the over-inflated importance it has right now.

I'm sure you've heard this rant before, but I'm constantly looking for alternatives to the standard computer mouse. Can you give me your thoughts on where we are on man-machine interfaces and what you think the primary interface will be going forward?
Buxton: On the one hand, much of the change has already happened, but because it works so well you don't even notice it.

Any product designer who thinks what they're designing is the thing in the box is completely missing the point.

For example, I play this game when I give talks where I say "e-commerce" and ask people what they think of. People often say Amazon, IBM, eBay. But I'd say maybe the company Symbol would be the right company. Well, you say, who the hell is Symbol? They make bar code scanners at the supermarket.

You realize there is essentially a PC. Instead of the mouse it has another input device, called a bar code scanner. It's all transparent. It's so seamless that we don't even notice it.

If we start looking around, you can say that you don't even have a brake pedal. You have a pedal interface to your car's software.

It's embedded, it's hidden and it's effective. It's a little bit like plumbing--you don't even notice it unless it breaks. We're starting to see things where you have a computer embedded.

So for me, one of my principles is if you recognize there's a computer there, it's potentially a failure of design. Digital cameras are nothing but computers that have photons in and pixels out. A digital camera is a personal computer that does not have schizophrenia. It has no identity crisis.

Why do think it takes so long for new interfaces to be used? We've had pen-based computing for years, for example.
Buxton: Things take a long time to take hold, and innovation has more to do with behaviors and human potential. In many ways, my entire career is a scam. I pretend I'm a computer scientist, but the technology I try to know most about is technology about the human.

I believe absolutely that any product designer who thinks what they're designing is the thing in the box is completely missing the point. When you design anything, what you're designing is an experience and experience in context. The things, the boxes, are simply the vehicles that afford that experience. If you don't design from that larger perspective, we're going to get it wrong.

You've worked with creative professionals. How does that relate to the design of software for others?
Buxton: I've worked largely with designers, musicians and filmmakers in the past because it's such a stimulating population to design for. It keeps your juices going. I would say that everything I've done in that context, though, has also led back to people in day-to-day jobs.

Creativity in innovation is really important...Any product can be delightful, and they don't have to be boring. Usability is important, but it's not sufficient.

Is has to be fun as well as useful?
Yes, appropriate. Why does a businessman spend money on a pen that is just wonderful to work with? It's not just for prestige. The act of conducting one's work with the right tools can be inspiring. It feeds the quality of work. And hopefully can have a domino effect.

As you talk about great products and things that make people happy, I think about Apple and how they've had several hits over the years. What's your assessment of Microsoft and how it takes these design principles into account?
Buxton: Anybody who has done any competitive sports knows there's no joy in beating someone who's incompetent or out of shape, so I have huge respect for Apple. I think they've performed really well in design and are outstanding. They're very worthy competitors, and I look forward to showing them that we can do way better.

Because Microsoft is such a large company, our perception is dominated by what we see in the core products like Office and Word, and we forget that much of the Macintosh experience is based on those products. Make sure we remember that.

Outside of that, there are sets of products where Microsoft is investing in terms of new opportunities that do have an element of design, like the Xbox or smart watches.

My sense is Microsoft is in transition from being an engineering-led company to as much a design-led company. There are more designers at Microsoft on any single team as there were not long too long ago in the entire company. It's a wonderful change.