The Trouble with Computers

Review:  The Trouble with Computers: Usefullness, Usability, and Productivity by Thomas K. Landauer

From its title, The Trouble with Computers sounds as if it is a work founded on pessimism. Do not let the title fool you. While Thomas K. Landauer, a Professor of Psychology and Fellow of The Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado, does believe that the computer age has been over hyped and has fallen short of promised gains, we are instructed that we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that this has been an experiment gone amiss. Computers and computer users are, however, in a lot of trouble, and unless changes are made in the way that computers and applications work, look and feel, productivity will continue to remain flat.

So, end-users, do not throw away your computers, sharpen your pencils and take the abacus out of storage; instead, urge developers and hardware manufacturers to take your needs and abilities in to account when they design their products. For, according to Landauer’s thesis, the broken productivity promise is largely the fault of these same developers. They are often too concerned with an “elegant solution”; needless features are added to applications, because they help the marketing process along. Products are designed in such a way as to make the software uninviting and even impossible to use.

There is, however, a solution to this problem, and it makes Landauer’s view of the Information Technology productivity “myth” an optimistic one. Developers, listen up: listen to and notice your intended users. Test your products out on the intended users of your products, and listen to the feedback they provide. This is user-centric design. And what are the benefits of user-centric design? Try, if you will, a reduction in training costs, lower employee turnover, and an increase in satisfaction among your users and customers. On a more long-term basis, one can expect from time to time that user-centric design will act as an incubator for new and exciting ideas.

Landauer presents a compelling argument, with incredibly on-target (and often quite amusing) anecdotal backup. There are countless applications on the market today designed in such way as to make them unusable; interfaces are cluttered and complicated, manuals are impossible to read, and processes are nonsensical. Even if you disagree with the econometric data supporting his productivity argument, Landauer’s book serves as a cautionary tale as to the excesses of software development teams. His is an eye-opening argument, and all who are involved with the implementation of information technology would do well to consider his remedies.

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Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

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