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Engelbart's Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use
Doug Engelbart developed a 5-finger keyboard with keys like a piano, used by one hand...but it was very difficult to learn
Apr. 10, 2008 09:15 AM
The mouse was the original idea of Doug Engelbart who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. It had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. The problem was, the five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn.
“Who would choose to point, steer, and draw with a blob of plastic as big and clumsy as a bar of soap? We spend all those years learning to write and draw with pencils, pens, and brushes.”
Who indeed? At the time the mouse was invented other devices such as the light pen, key pads, and joysticks and even the trackball existed or were being considered for pointing devices in computing. How did the mouse come to be the most common pointing device?
The mouse, that unlikely “blob of plastic” was the original idea of Doug Engelbart (pictured) who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. ARC also invented the first word processor, hypertext, and groupware – all of which were first demoed in 1968, 15 years before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa and 13 years before Xerox PARC introduced the Star, the ancestor of the modern personal computer.
The mouse became the pointing device of choice for ARC
because it was proven, in user testing, to be the most efficient of all the
devices tested. There was nothing
elegant or particularly attractive about Engelbart’s mouse – he adopted it
because it required less user-effort and was more precise than anything else
they tested. Engelbart was not
interested at all in ease-of-use; he was interested only in improving the
efficiency with which humans interacted with computers.
Engelbart had ideas around human-computer interactions that he originally described in 1962 in his seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” This paper is the foundation of Engelbart’s philosophy on human-computer interaction and it led to the invention of the mouse, hypertext, windows, and groupware.
According to Engelbart, in order to achieve the best human-computer symbiosis – an objective that is central to his Augmenting Intellect philosophy – users need to be trained to use the most efficient computer artifacts (e.g. pointing devices, keyboards, etc.). Engelbart did not believe that computers should be easy for novices to use; he believed that people would require lengthy training in order to be truly effective. Specifically, he wanted computer interactions to be based on systems that, with considerable training, were the most efficient – not the easiest to use.
Engelbart 's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the
design of another device that he invented, the five-finger
keyboard. The keyboard had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. It was based on chords, sort of like
a guitar, where pressing combinations of buttons output certain characters.
“This is how the interactions were designed. On the mouse, one button was to click, another was called command accept, and the third was called command delete. If you wanted to delete a word, you hit the middle button on the keypad, which was the letter d. It was d because it is the fourth letter in the alphabet and this was a binary coding, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. If it was the letter f, it was the sixth letter so you’d hit the 2 and the 4 keys at the same time.“
Today, human-computer interaction is focused on ease-of-use
and learnability. Ideally, people should be immediately effective with a
computer the first time they use it. The emphasis is on usability – without the
necessity of training. The exact opposite of Engelbart’s approach.
Are Engelbart’s ideas about efficiency over ease-of-use completely crazy? I don't think so – not entirely. I once heard or read (I can’t remember which) that Engelbart compared his interaction system to that of the violin. In essence, he said that the violin is an awkward instrument for novices but that, with training, a good musician can create incredibly beautiful music. My son trained in the violin for a couple of years, and I can attest to the amount of practice it took to master even simple melodies, but I’ve also seen good students play music that moved me more than any other instrument I have ever heard. Perhaps, like the violin, people could reach a new level of synergy with computers if they followed Engelbart’s philosophy and focused on efficiency over ease-of-use.
The truth is we may never know if Engelbart is right,
because the computer is the province of the masses and not just expert
users. If we were designing a musical
instrument today, our focus on ease-of-use and learning would probably lead us
to the kazoo rather than the violin.
This column appears exclusively at SYS-CON.com. Copyright © 2008 Richard Monson-Haefel.
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