‘U’ promotes user-friendly technology

Emily Banks

Anyone who feels uncomfortable with cell phones that don’t reach from ear to mouth or who can’t figure out how to set the time on a VCR has experienced unusable technologies.

Today is World Usability Day, a day to discuss easy-to-use technology that will be recognized in 39 countries.

Computer science and engineering professor Joseph Konstan will be speaking at some of the University’s Usability Day events. He sat down with the Daily to talk about usability.

What is “usability”?

It’s sometimes easiest to think of usability when you get the counterexample. The one thing people have joked about for years is the number of people who have a video cassette recorder who couldn’t record, or couldn’t program it to record when they weren’t there.

It’s also a sad statement that the product designers didn’t spend the effort to design that system so that the people using it could make it effective.

What makes a certain kind of technology more usable?

You can put people in front of a technology and see if it’s usable, and that’s a large part of what the field’s about, (saying) “How do we involve the user before it’s too late?”

And part of it’s a whole design process of understanding what the user’s needs are, understanding what they already know, understanding human psychology and physiology.

We’ve had some phones that have come out lately where people feel uncomfortable because the mouthpiece is so far from their mouth, even if they’re well designed and the microphone can pick it up from a distance, it just seems wrong. It’s that whole combination of factors that lead to something that people can use.

Do you think the changes to how we communicate, such as the Internet, e-mail and text messaging, are good?

My gut reaction is that most of these changes eventually will be good. I think with any new technology that changes the way people interact, you lose something and you gain something else, and it takes a while for people to adapt themselves to what they’re gaining.

I do think there’s something lost from having uninterrupted face-to-face time and it does worry me when I see people sitting together and they’re spending their time on their cell phones or texting people who are not there rather than interacting.

At the same time, I think that’s going to work itself out. I think that people will evolve ways of being closer to one another than they might have been before.

Where do you think we’ll go from here?

One thing we’ve been studying here at the University well is collective action in these online environments.

We saw this back in the last presidential election, that that’s always something that can be mobilized for political purposes.

What happens when half a million people in the Twin Cities connect online and decide we’re finally going to solve the homeless problem?

Is there a way to use this online technology to coordinate people, some of whom are busy building houses, some of whom are marching at the capitol and doing other things to make this happen?

I think there’s tremendous potential. I think it’s going to be really exciting to see what happens when people can rally around causes and don’t require going door-to-door and don’t require calling up your friends and getting them to meet.

What’s unique to the University regarding technology and usability?

The fact that we have a really substantial campus usability lab has been a big advantage.

There’s a small room where you can have someone go do something, like get on a Web site and try out a new student registration system while other people behind one-way glass with screens replicated and cameras and recorders and everything else, so you can watch and find out what’s going on or what’s going well.

We’re able to watch real people try it and improve it before we impose it on everybody else.