Thursday, December 27, 2007
  Why I hate the photocopier
Photo by CloCkWeRX captioned "The most evil photocopier I know."
It is often the simplest ideas that are the most useful. From the most physical, like those few grains of rice in the salt celler that stop the salt coagulating by absorbing moisture, to the most cerebral, like the concept of zero. Donald Norman, author of the 1988 classic critique of the way VCRs (remember them?) work The Design of Everyday Things, has done it again. His new book, The Design of Future Things, deals with the failure of much technology design to relate well to/with humans.

Some machines "think" and the relationship works, a clothes drier that senses when the clothes are dry and switches off... but other machines drive us crazy. Like the college photocopier, I put a book on the glass, carefully positioned so that the left page will nicely fill an A4 sheet (A4 is global standard paper size for North American readers) that means an enlargement to about 133%, so I type that in and choose the correct paper tray. This will produce a nice clean, readable copy for the students. I press "Start", and the machine whirs. It "thinks" for itself. It's sensors inform it's "brain": the page is B4 size, it is placed crosswise, but the user has chosen the A4 normal direction tray (and the users commands, or at least some of them, must be obeyed)... So it outputs a sheet with the whole double page spread of the book shrunk to fit cross ways on the page, each word a marvel of micro-minituarisation.

It sounds as if there is a problem of communication between the photocopier and me (actually it is not just this photocopier, the previous one was nearly as bad) perhaps counselling would help?

Enter Donald Norman, talking about Delft (yes the city in Holland) apparently the city square in Delft (I have not been there, so cannot confirm this observation - perhaps you have and can confirm it for us?) the city square in Delft is full of pedestrians and cyclists all busily wending their ways in different directions at different speeds. Yet there are seldom collisions. Now if each pedestrian kept their eyes open (especially the ones in the back of their heads) and carefully dodged the bikes all hell would break loose and the city hospital would be full to overflowing. It is because the pedestrians, sensibly - but counter-intuitively, do not attempt to dodge the cyclists, but plod predictably on ignoring the bikes whizzing past, that the cyclists can easily avoid the slower obstacles in their path, and concentrate on not hitting other cyclists.

Donald Norman sensibly notes:
If our smart devices were understandable and predictable, we wouldn’t dislike them so much.
...The simple idea that is really useful? Make things predictable. If I simply put a book on the copier and press "start" let the machine make its best guess as to the output, but if I make settings myself then, do what I blasted tell you and don't even try to think! If the stupit machine would learn that lesson we'd get along fine.

PS if all goes well Barbara and I go off to the bach (or see location) for our summer holidays today, so not more posts till next year...

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