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Yesterday I passed the Covent Garden Apple Store, which has attracted a collection of flowers and tributes to co-founder, CEO and chairman Steve Jobs. His premature death and the global reaction has provoked widespread analysis into exactly what it is that he did so successfully. The Economist in particular have published a number of features on Jobs, as well as a timely special report on personal technology. Apple, the author of this report notes, “has indeed ushered in a new era in which personal technology is finally living up to its name. That is because the technology is starting to adapt to the people who use it rather than forcing them to adapt to it.”

Apple products like the iPhone are brilliantly easy to use, making advanced technology available and useful to everyday users. Apple’s designers are world class at devising and developing products (each of which are marked “Designed by Apple in Cupertino”) that help their customers navigate the strange new world that technology brings – often by making things as simple as possible. The most remarkable feature of the latest iPhone is Siri, a new feature that draws on Natural Language Processing to let users set reminders, send messages and do many more tasks simply through voice command. “The intelligent assistant that helps you get things done” has been received well by early adopters who claim it works with the ease they expect from Apple: “remarkably good at interpreting instructions and turning them into actions” one reviewer said.

Here at the RSA, we sometimes describe our mission as being to understand and enhance human capabilities in order to meet the challenges that we face in the 21st century. Our practical work demonstrates this through projects that explore how we can more effectively understand our brains, our place in the community, our ability to become more resourceful and so on. Personal technology, like smartphones and apps, also promises enhance our capabilities; for example helping us to manage large amounts of information in order to make better decisions. But as Marshall McLuhan wrote (almost fifty years ago) in Understanding Media: “The medium gives power through extension but immobilizes and paralyzes what it extend. In this sense, technologies both extend and amputate”.

The Economist report that sales of tablets and smartphones are expected to overtake sales of PCs this year, and projected to reach 10 billion mobile connected devices by 2020. But although personal technology is increasingly pervasive, it’s unusual to see balanced commentary on the effect of innovations like Siri on people’s capabilities. On the one hand, we say that personal technology is a tool that extends and empowers us. Towards the more neo-luddite/amputation end of the spectrum, we say that sat-navs dissuade us from making mental maps of an area, calculators make us worse at mental arithmetic and word-processing software ruins our spelling and handwriting. [When the media does note downsides to personal technology, they’re usually restricted to privacy concerns and surveillance (including sousveillance).]

Designers often strive to make things as simple as possible for the user, but are there ever situations in which too much simplicity becomes disempowering and creates dependencies in the long term? Should personal technology (hardware or apps) be designed to encourage the user to think and engage, rather than passively accept defaults? If so, how should these design decisions be made; are there principles that could guide interaction designers to decide when to protect the user from unnecessary details, and when to provoke action? What would Marshall McLuhan say about the iPhone and Siri, and what would Steve Jobs think about all this?

I’m sure interaction designers, cognitive ergonomists and others have been exploring questions like these for years. I’d love to hear about any examples of products or interfaces that are designed in a way that reinforces rather diminishes their users’ independent capabilities.


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