Harold Thimbleby: It simply adds up

From a speech by the Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London
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The Independent Online

We as consumers think computers can perform magic. Many of us are in awe of their power and feel ill-equipped to question manufacturers on performance and usability of everyday computerised gadgets. Often, if we cannot use a product or understand the user manual, we conclude this is due to our own technical inadequacy. Researchers are looking at ways technology can help us and make our lives easier. Houses are being built that know who is around and what they are doing – and what they want; cars are filled with computers and sensors; people think they can lengthen their lives by having computer implants, and talks are underway to microchip children.

We as consumers think computers can perform magic. Many of us are in awe of their power and feel ill-equipped to question manufacturers on performance and usability of everyday computerised gadgets. Often, if we cannot use a product or understand the user manual, we conclude this is due to our own technical inadequacy. Researchers are looking at ways technology can help us and make our lives easier. Houses are being built that know who is around and what they are doing – and what they want; cars are filled with computers and sensors; people think they can lengthen their lives by having computer implants, and talks are underway to microchip children.

Despite these amazing technical advances gadgets are not as easy to use as we might hope. Gadgets like mobile phones and car navigation systems are often difficult to use. Most of the time we cope. Yet occasionally, in some situations, trying to use a complex system can be dangerous and expensive, not just tedious.

A nurse using a syringe pump to provide automatic drug injections is under extreme pressure to "do the right thing" in a distracting environment, yet errors can have very unfortunate consequences for patients. There is a business-driven temptation to rely on training rather than good design, because it reinforces the idea that users are to blame for errors, and hence the business is not liable for the consequences of what it likes to call human error. Things would be easier to learn to use and more errors would be avoided if the gadgets were designed better. Trying to use a mobile phone, or even the radio or navigation system, while driving a car can be so distracting to be dangerous. Ideas like voice control are not going to change the underlying complexity, as anyone who has been frustrated by telephone voice menus will know!

For today's technology there are two serious issues. First, if we continue to take advantage of buying more and more powerful technology to solve our problems, we are going to have to keep on throwing away the old stuff that no longer works well enough. Unfortunately our landfill sites will soon be full, so this isn't a long-term solution. The second, more positive, motivation is to know that today's complicated and difficult to use things could be a lot, lot easier to use. In other words, if we were a bit more critical, manufacturers could easily make better products, and ones that stayed useful for longer.

Mathematics underpins the whole design process, and using it can make designs more reliable, easier to use, as well as making the manuals accurate. And the mathematical ideas work from the drawing board right through the process to getting products to work. The mathematics isn't hard, but is very effective. If designers and manufacturers used maths, everything could be much easier for us to use. It would also be a lot more reliable, which maybe is just what you'd expect from using maths, but it would also be a lot more creative.

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