Last updated on October 17, 2018
The XEROX PARC chapter of personal computing explicitly changed the user from Doug Engelbart’s high-performance knowledge worker to the secretary, whom they called ‘Sally’.
As Alan Kay pointed out, and which Doug illustrated in his seminal ’62 paper with the user ‘Joe’, Doug was trying to make a violin but not everyone wants to play a violin. Today we have the Mac and Windows with their point-and-click ease and limitations, with scarcely an innovation in the last few decades worth mentioning.
This distinction was of course never in black and white and today the average computer user is much more experienced than in earlier decades and of course it is important to provide an entry to a user with a learning curve which is not too steep.
When Doug made the Keynote Address at the World Library Summit 2002 in Singapore, he pointed out that we have made ‘truly tremendous progress’ in using computer systems to help us solve problems. He continues:
But that is not what I am going to talk to you about. Not out of lack of appreciation – even a sense of wonder – over what computer technologists have developed – but because I can see that we are not yet really making good progress toward realizing the really substantial payoff that is possible. That payoff will come when we make better use of computers to bring communities of people together and to augment the very human skills that people bring to bear on difficult problems.
He clearly presented what he saw as the goal; ‘to get the significant payoff from using computers to augment what people can do’:
Furthermore, Doug discussed the “seductive, destructive appeal of ‘ease of use’ – A second powerful, systematic bias that leads computing technology development away from grappling with serious issues of collaboration – the kind of thing, for example, that would really make a difference to disaster response organizations – is the belief that “ease of use” is somehow equated with better products. Going back to my tricycle/bicycle analogy, it is clear that for an unskilled user, the tricycle is much easier to use. But, as we know, the payoff from investing in learning to ride on two wheels is enormous. We seem to lose sight of this very basic distinction between “ease of use” and “performance” when we evaluate computing systems.”
Sally is now well served by the software community’s continual, gradual improvements. Let’s give Joe another shot, let’s build knowledge work systems like bikes with rockets attached.