Tom Chi  

Too Much (bad) Information

May 21st, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Kevin will write something significant about the diary study methodology but in the meantime I wanted to pose some questions. A lot of our study techniques seek to understand the user in their natural environment — the mantra being: we must serve the user in the ways that he or she lives now. Unfortunately, there are plenty of us who do not live in a way that is optimal for our health or our long-term well being. Given this, does it make sense to crystallize bad habits by creating products that tailor to them?For example, a company developing a fast food product might run a series of studies that show that customers would be willing to eat up to 20 fast food snacks a week. The data might show that at several points in the day, the user is hungry enough to purchase fast food if it were within a 5-minute radius. However, even though the resulting product might serve a short term need and be economically viable, in the long term the result harms the user.

When a system is not locking in bad habits, it can sometimes be eliminating people entirely. I remember working a system that was designed to replace people. Scores and scores of people. And being the good HCI person I was, I needed to run interviews and inquiries into the roles that these people played before I could design the system that allowed 1 person to do the same work.

There was a point when I was showing prototypes to a group of users and one user said: “this thing does exactly what I do… and it just happens automatically when click this?” It was definitely awkward. I remember feeling bad, but I rationalized that freedom from handling this work would allow them to move up the chain, or explore new opportunities at the organization. Of course this rationalization is false. Chalk it up to progress perhaps.

Ultimately, even though we often say to ourselves that we are in it to “benefit the user”, there are times when our systems can lock them in to bad behaviors, or lock them out of employment. The same techniques of user centered design are being applied, but with economic optimizations as their underlying goal. Trying to take on larger more nebulous goals of “improving people’s lives” is considerably harder, and beyond the scope of most companies. Afterall, the companies are organized and optimized around economic concerns first and foremost. So while every company has a mission statement that says (paraphrase): do great things for the people of Earth, how much of a reality is this?

7 Responses to “Too Much (bad) Information”
Ben wrote:

Sorry for not aiding your discussion on the wiping out of people who do easily automated functions in an organization, but your (plural) comic had me wondering, “What’s a merkin?” I can now proudly say that I’m one vocab word smarter than I was yesterday.

Dermo wrote:

Okay Kevin, As the person who explained to you the purpose poppers, I know why I know what a merkin is, but I’m curious why you do…

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Dermo: I will simply say that I have my sources and leave it at that.

To bring it back on Tom’s topic, think his first point on crystallising bad habits is an interesting one. I personally take the stance that a person’s lifestyle is their own choice. Some like to super-size, knowing full well the health risks. Who are we to decide that their lifestyle is wrong and our views are correct? Looking at it the other way, what if the designer felt that smoking/fastfood/whatever were the best things in the world? Would you want those views imposed on designs made for you?

The latter point is a debate that’s far beyond just the boundaries of UCD. There are plenty of examples of technological enhancements that have shaped how our society operates today. New jobs are created and old ones demolished all the time. We can say that the world should be perfectly content with the basics but that’s just not our nature and as such, we thrive on change and changes tend to hurt some and benefit others. It’s an incredibly philosophical and moral question really.

Bob wrote:

I, too, have worked on a job killer. When it became marketed as one I left the company. (It got to the point where salespeople were asking us to send in any job adverts we found for the type of role being replaced, so that they could persuade the potential employer to buy our gizmo instead.)

What about areas where you improve one thing, but that creates new problems, possibly because you didn’t / can’t change the whole environment? An example I can think of is the ergonomic keyboard - it certainly has helped me not to have aching arms. However, it’s wider than a standard keyboard and heavy mouse users (that is, people who use a mouse a lot, rather than people who use a mouse made of lead, or overweight users of mice) may get worse mouse elbow due to moving the fore-arm further.

I don’t have a merkin, but I was given a furry Bagpuss mouse once. It’s only used on special occasions, so the fur doesn’t get all worn and grubby. Lovely pink and white stripes.

Mark Thristan wrote:

Focus on the user is only one of the facets of any product or object in the real world. The object in itself or the materials with which it is fashioned could impose restrictions on a user for a start, and secondly, the business proposing the product is likely to have its own aims as well - most likely the inverse of the user’s desires. I guess the best products find a harmonious path through these, as Calvin and Hobbes so neatly put it: “Scientific Progress Goes Boink”.

Tommy wrote:

Iíll play devils advocate (Tomís evil twin, what have you).

I think we all have Excel on our computers. This application was made to make the lives of accountants and others easier. Iím sure that in the process, since it has reduced the amount of man hours necessary to spend on doing all the paper work accountants had to perform beforehand, it has cut some jobs as well. Should we all throw Excel away and not work on any other project that could increase productivity since it may cause someone to loose their job?

Machinery has been made that has replaced workers on car manufacturing lines. Not ALL the people lost their jobs though. Yes, many jobs were lost, but some positions adapted to be something different (maintaining the machines and ensuring they were working appropriately, etc.). Do we want to through all those machines away now so the jobs that were lost when that occurred are available again (before you answer, consider how much you want to spend when purchasing a car next time)?

With advances comes change. Although some jobs are lost with advancements, new jobs are also created (although Excel and other software products may have reduced the number of accountants and some other jobs, it also created a larger need for HCI work to ensure the fewer people doing the job could use it as efficiently as possible). We didnít stop when we noticed jobs that were created during the industrial revolution were being lost due to technology advances.

Tom Chi wrote:

Tommy has some great points.

Being an engineer I have a (probably overblown) sense that technology will ultimately make all of our lives better. Plus, working the HCI domain seemed like an excellent way to benefit people in a short-term, tangible way. My article mainly speaks to the fact that sometimes it’s not like that in practice. We “champion the user”, but we have economic realities and optimizations which can sometimes work against the user.

I’m not really sure whether the question of “what people really need” is even within the scope of HCI. But it is a question that we purport to address in our requirements gathering and with our designs.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?