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Human Factors

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Today’s programming languages provide programmers with sophisticated tools for coding and testing software. Why then, are computers and computer software so often characterized as being difficult to use?

Programmer and user interface designer Alan Cooper offers an explanation and solution in his book “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”. According to Cooper, programmers don’t intentionally create bad technology products. “Programmers aren’t evil. They work hard to make their software easy to use. Unfortunately, their frame of reference is themselves, so they only make it easy to use for other software engineers, not for normal human beings”. Cooper suggests that it is possible to create intuitive, easy-to-use technology products by devoting more time to developing detailed product specifications with the assistance of an “interactive designer” who is familiar with the psychology and habits of a typical computer user.

Clare-Marie Karat, a psychologist and IBM researcher developed


The Computer User’s Bill of Rights

1. The user is always right. If there is a problem with the use of the system, the

system is the problem, not the user.

2. The user has the right to easily install software and hardware systems.

3. The user has the right to a system that performs exactly as promised.

4. The user has the right to easy-to-use instructions for understanding and utilizing

a system to achieve desired goals.

5. The user has the right to be in control of the system and to be able to get the

system to respond to a request for attention.

6. The user has the right to a system that provides clear, understandable, and

accurate information regarding the task it is performing and the progress toward completion.

7. The user has the right to be clearly informed about all system requirements for

successfully using software or hardware.

8. The user has the right to know the limits of the system’s capabilities.

9. The user has the right to communicate with the technology provider and receive

a thoughtful and helpful response when raising concerns.

10. The user should be the master of software and hardware technology, not vice-

versa. Products should be natural and intuitive to use.

Karat agrees with Cooper’s comments about programmers being unable to understand the people who use their software. She says, “The profile of the people who use systems has changed, while the system, and the culture in which they have developed, have not adjusted … The engineers and computer scientists who design hardware and software know little about the needs and frustrations of consumers.”

Some efforts to simplify operating system software have created another band of disgruntled users who complain that important features are now “hidden” because of feedback from novice testers who considered such features too advanced or confusing. Some controls, such as those for setting up networks, are not easy to understand, but could be crucial for a successful installation. Hiding those controls because they might confuse beginners has only caused advanced users to become frustrated.

Who is right? Can technology be simplified, yet remain powerful enough to accomplish complex tasks? A branch of ergonomics called Human Factors, or Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), focuses on factors that make computers easy or difficult to use.


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