OZCHI Zeitgeist: Why does technology suck so much?

On the first day of OZCHI ’10 John Seely Brown gave the opening keynote. As usual, making a laptop connect to the AV system was… problematic.

Making the technology work

In this picture you can see Ken, me and JSB all puzzling over JSB’s laptop, trying to figure out the incantation to make it talk to the AV system. Is there a lecture theatre in the country where the AV works seamlessly? I’d settle for it working seamfully so you could figure out what was wrong. With AV systems like those in lecture theaters so common, why are they still so hard to figure out?

In the closing keynote, Toni Robertson asked, and I’m paraphrasing here, “why does technology suck so much?” Toni told several stories about technologies that are largely settled but still provide a terrible user experience — video conferencing being one notable example.

Toni proposed that there are political reasons why technologies suck. Reasons that have to do with the power relations between people, organizations and objects. She said that HCI/UX/IxD/whatever needs to expand its interest beyond technologies to the wider sphere of work and how technologies come to be part of work. To some degree this focus on work has been part of the program of CSCW however I think Toni was proposing an even more direct interest in how technologies become settled and how to fix them if they’ve become settled but are still broken.

This project will have to look backward and forward. In looking backward, researchers will work to find out how things came to be. In looking forward researchers and practitioners will work to shape not just technologies but also the organisational contexts in which they become embedded. In some ways, we already have to tools we need to do this looking and shaping. Ethnographic approaches, participatory approaches, service design and systems design are all relatively well known in the community of HCI practitioners and researchers. In other ways, this project is entirely new. Looking and shaping are different to understanding and making the leap from looking to shaping through understanding is really, really hard. Getting the mandate to throughly investigate an existing technology, or assembly of technologies will not be easy. The scope is much bigger, and steps on more toes, than HCI has traditionally attempted.

But, as Toni said, we are the commuity of people who say that we care about the experiences that people have with technologies. If we care, then we are the people who should be attempting to understand why technologies suck so much and we are the people who should be creating systems of technologies and relations that are pleasant, effective and easy to use.

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