Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

The human factor in gadget, Web design

New gizmos and Web sites may be cool, but they're not always easy to use. Some people are out to change that. Images: Cheers and jeers for user design

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
6 min read
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.

"Design must be optimized for body or brain, it has to be deeply human, something that you desire and aspire to. That's meaningful design," said Maeda.

Human-computer interaction design takes a page from a much older field known as "human factors," which came out of the aviation industry's effort to improve the ease-of-use of airplane cockpits after World War II. Now that we have cell phones, real-time graphical maps in the car and simple computers in everything from kitchen appliances to children's toys, the demand for people who understand how users interact with new technology has only grown.

"Design must be optimized for body or brain, it has to be deeply human, something that you desire and aspire to. That's meaningful design."
--John Maeda, a computer scientist at MIT's Media Lab

"Everything's becoming a computer--radios, cars, cameras, TVs--and they all have more computer power than the Apollo moon rocket," said Nielsen. "This may sound good, but it's not, because the designers can't help themselves to add so many more features than the user ever needs."

The good, the bad, the ugly
So which companies do design experts look to for inspiration?

Apple is cited more than any other company for its user design, and sales of the iPod illustrate where that obsession pays off. Experts say that a design aesthetic comes from the top, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs exemplifies that.

Some pundits would argue that Google's breakthrough was in building better search technology, but others might say its stripped-down interface was the innovation that attracted a majority of users. Maeda likes Google's design because it's simple, optimistic and humanistic. Its "I'm feeling lucky" button, for example, feeds a sense of optimism.

Another top choice is TiVo. During the VCR's heyday, people often joked about how hard it was to set time of day on the device, according to Don Norman, a design professor at Northwestern University. Time was essential because if the VCR wasn't set right, then people couldn't program it to record a show at a certain time. TiVo solved that problem by removing the time equation. The device enables consumers to simply record a program--say, the Australian Open--based on the title or subject matter, rather than record a show according to the channel and time slot. "That is breakthrough," Norman said.

Another example of good design, say experts, is the Nintendo Wii. Unlike game consoles that rely on controllers and buttons, Nintendo's Wii lets people play a game like they might in the real world. A person playing tennis, for example, would swing her arm with the Wii controller as though she were holding a tennis racket.

"It's a welcome sigh of relief to many people. Mind you, this didn't take any technological breakthrough, it just took some imagination and some thought about the average person," said Norman.

In the column of bad design, design critics (and BMW drivers) commonly flame BMW's iDrive, a one-knob control interface for all in-car systems--audio, navigation, phone, ventilation and so on. It's elegant, but most people think it isn't as intuitive as simple knobs and buttons. "It's a huge step backward to these abstract menus," Norman said.

The future of design Industry experts say designers will have to be mindful of human attention spans in an age of information-overload. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, MIT and other universities are working on designs that could, for example, give people more options than "on" or "off." CMU is working to develop interfaces that could detect what a person is working on (through visual sensors) and then perhaps deflect other attention-grabbing applications so the user can stay focused.

Experts say design of many household appliances and gadgets has typically been driven by marketing people, who believe that more buttons, controls and features sell. But manufacturers like Whirlpool are beginning to think about making their devices less intimidating, according to Norman.

New user interfaces, like so-called multi-touch screens, are also promising to change computing and devices. Jeff Han, who famously introduced new multi-touch technology at the high-profile media conference Technology, Entertainment and Design last year, recently launched a company called Perceptive Pixel to sell the multi-touch technology, starting with the military.

The technology removes the keyboard and the mouse so that people can use two hands to do things like touch the screen, zoom in on data, edit pictures or manipulate 3D maps. Perceptive Pixel is working on bringing the technology to tabletops and walls as big as 8 feet wide.

"In general, technology's become so good that it's not the differentiator between products," said Han. "User interface is becoming a huge differentiator."