Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Searching for the Fundamental Flaw

I daydream occasionally about a hypothetical candy box of doctorates, from which I might some day pluck a thesis to pursue. The creamy center of each potential research project is a variation on the urgent question HEY,WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON HERE!

Among many burning questions, I really want to know: Why is software for users SO difficult to design well?
To put some perspective on this, I wonder...
  • Can consciousness in the universe be understood as an attribute of the mind of God? (Department: Philosophy)
  • How do we bring an observer across the liminal space between audience and stage and thus into participation – and make her go back again? (Department: Theater)
  • How can one help readers and writers from a western / linear literary tradition understand and tell non-linear narratives? (Department: Literature)
(Wait, wait, that last one was my graduate thesis. Well, the practical answer is: get a job as an information architect.)

Personally, I think all my questions are relevant to user experience. But again, perhaps the most pressing one is:

Why is software for users SO difficult to design well? (Department: Computer Science)

My theory is as follows. There was something twisted about how information technology came into being on the planet Earth. It didn’t have to be this way, and on other worlds it may have developed quite differently – perhaps organically instead of mechanically, perhaps initiated by artists or librarians or composers instead of by adolescent suburban math geeks. But in our reality, as a result of how this all got started, user-facing aspects of all information systems inherit foundational flaws that make it necessary for the user experience profession to exist. If that is so, then what are those flaws?

I should confess I’ve received no props for this theory so far. When I posed the question at a think-tank knowledge-share meeting, I got blank and silent stares from 200 pairs of engineering eyeballs. When I chatted with my friend Eric Reiss about this theory, he waved his hand and told me all new ideas get built wrong at first – that for instance chairs as we know them didn’t exist until something like the 15th century. But I don’t buy it – I know there’s something going on here.

And some day, I mean to find out what it is.

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