Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Is Usability in products and applications making people dumber?

Selected Answers from my Linkedin.com network:
Garlin Gilchrist II
Web Developer & Designer, Smart Guy

Usability not only improves productivity, it also enhances the positivity of experience and interaction.

Processing more things/data/information does not make one more or less smart. Being smart/intelligent is largely about making the right choices on what to focus on. Better usability in products and applications allows for demonstrations of intelligence for the user and the application creator:

User: I only have to process/think about important things (e.g. the task/challenge at hand), a better use of my brain functionality and capacity.

Creator: I apply my intellect to focus only what the user really wants, and eliminating as much of the other stuff as possible (this is their challenge).

Usability does not reduce the ability to tackle challenges; it instead let's us focus directly on them.


Robert Jakobson
Program Manager, Evangelist, Technologist

If we follow your logic for a moment here, it would mean that by going to a good school with skilled instructors and up to date books and technology, the education you recieved was a disservice to you.

Merely making things easier for people does not reduce their ability to learn or cause their brain processes to become reduced. The falacy of your argument is based on the misunderstanding that learning is similar to a muscle and it needs to be excercised to become stronger and if it's not used it will atrophy.

Where to some extent this is true, it's also true that you excercise it not by using the interface of a computer - but by the activity you're performing on it. So in a sense by allowing people to more easily engage in activities usability increases ones intelligence.

By the same token, making it easier to go to the gym doesn't give someone a strong body - if they don't excercise when they get to the gym and you have to ingest something other than junk food.


Jim Dustin
VP, Human Factors Design and Usability at Citigroup, Citi Cards

Interesting angle and kind of a trick question! Many of the answers consider usability from the perspective of software design, for which it has gained much attention. However usability and its principles literally surround us, including nature.

Taking your question in broad terms and assuming by “dumber” you mean: enabling people not to struggle using a tool, understand a communication, mentally process a service or other task in a way that is more comfortable, than if these same things were less easily achieved – then yes, dumber.

Thinking is work-- and primates as well as many other animals would rather not work, if it’s not necessary. If it is necessary, for survival, we’re hard wired to try to solve problems and even these can start to drift out of the realm of toil and into ego fulfillment, challenge satisfaction and other forms of pleasure. Are complex video games work, pleasure or both?

Like many things, both man-made and natural, it really is just about shift. Animals seek easy navigational paths to watering holes and use them over and over again, until something changes. There would be no need to blaze new trails each time, which could bring unnecessary danger. For humans, using the wheel was easier than dragging; a bow and arrow, easier and more accurate than throwing a sharp stick, printing presses, much easier than handwritten copying, etc.

At each evolutionary stage, we rarely go backwards. A modern calculator is a perfect example. I’d bet many people could no longer do the long hand equations that are easily made using the device. They may have traded off the need to understand how, just as they no longer know how to survive in the wild and hunt for food. If something has proven to be usable and easy, we gravitate toward it naturally. We want to be dumber in some things, so we can be smarter in others. The advent of metal tool making, allowed us to free up our minds for other tasks and opportunities, rather than use the time and thought required for handcraft. Constantly shifting. Even a river seeks the course of least resistance.

Usability is an extension and reflection of invention. It’s not just relegated to polishing something after the fact; it’s there from the beginning and evolves. Arthur C. Clarke once stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I suspect that in many ways, a Tribesman living off the land in the Amazon jungle is way smarter than I would be using the same tools. Usability as it relates to “smarter” or “dumber” is a matter of context.


Jim Hancock, MBA, CQM
QA, QM and IT Director at Geospiza, Inc.

Good usability allows us to be specialists. Put differently, if a widget has poor usability then I have to become an expert at operating the widget. This diffuses my focus from my original activity ...and therefore I can't learn the original activity as quickly as I otherwise could.

So good usability allows us to learn more deeply ..and poor usability forces our skills and knowledge to remain more shallow.

This assessment of course implies that the person is in fact TRYING to learn something. The "ignorance is bliss" crowd aren't going to learn much regardless.


Bob Jude Ferrante
Software & Entertainment Author & Producer

Quite the contrary... but it depends how you define "dumber."

If you define intelligence as the ability to complete tasks, then better usability is actually increasing the user's effective intelligence. The brain is better used to perform connections and to rise above quotidian detail; enslaving the brain to memorization of complex system commands is actually reducing its ability to make those essential connections.

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