I sat down for a job interview back in June 2006 with Robbie Cape, CEO of the then-unlaunched Cozi, housed in the Smith Tower in downtown Seattle. The interview was for a software development position, and thus I was grilled by a couple of members of the Cozi team on writing software code (I don’t recall doing particularly well on this). What I remember most, though, was talking with Robbie, who described his product thusly: putting down the pen he was taking notes with, he fluttered the top page of his notebook a bit and said that he wanted his product to be as transparent as pen and paper. Lofty goals, to be sure, but for some reason, that very image has stuck with me, and it’s haunted me quite a bit lately. Part of the reason for this are the titles of IMT 510 and IMT 540 this year: Human Aspects of Information Systems and Design Methods for Interaction and Systems, respectively.
As I’ve read a lot of the readings that have been assigned, particularly for 540, the idea of user-centered design – that the software should be written to suit the user’s purposes, rather than the user adapting to the software’s purposes – has been at the forefront. There are various different approaches to this, of course, but the central idea is that users should not be forced to accept whatever decisions the developers have made for them without any input into the process. Ease of use, it is said, cannot be achieved without involving people who are somehow affected by the software – to coin phrases from Value Sensitive Design and Hosmer, the direct and indirect stakeholders. This makes me think quite a bit about the pen and paper metaphor. The fact is that pen and paper is only easy to use because we, as a society, make it so; for the longest time, it was quill and paper. The next advancement in technology could very well make it stylus and “ePaper”, some sort of electronic device that is as thin as paper but that remembers everything we write on it by storing it within a very large internal memory. But I digress – the point of design is to ensure transparency.
Can the simplicity of pen and paper ever truly be matched by a computer program or an information system? An open question, since many are attempting to do this. In reality, it likely is only what it is – a metaphor. But what if it were doable? What kind of world would we have then?