Friday, January 21, 2011

The Sirius Cybernetics “user experience”

The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy was a science fiction radio series in the 70s … then a book series … TV series … and finally a movie.

In it, an Earthman called Arthur Dent is rescued from a demolished Earth and travels the galaxy with his alien friend Ford Prefect.

As this is science fiction, the galaxy is populated with amazing shiny technology … however as this is from the tortured mind of Douglas Adams, a lot of this technology is somewhat twisted.

And the maker of all this technology?  The Sirius Cybernetics Corperation.  They were a satire on many of the UK enterprises of the 70s who would start off with a good idea, however by the time they'd produced any finished product, the good idea was unwieldy, customer unfriendly and overall just a pain in the neck.

So peppered throughout the series were such memorable technology as,

  • drinks machines which would scan your taste buds and brain waves to try and determine what would be most palatable to you  But then “something would go wrong” and what would be delivered would be almost always disgusting.
  • androids with “Genuine People Personalities” to make them easier to relate to.  But this made the androids too human, with Marvin the Paranoid Android suffering from severe depression.  Ironically Marvin who drives anyone who spends too much time with him up the wall is marketed as “Your plastic pal who's fun to be with”
  • intelligent lifts – who are so busy haggling with their users – telling them the floor they ought to try, rather than take them to the floor they want. *
  • a space passenger craft which has kept it's passengers in suspended animation for thousands of years because it doesn't want to inconvenience them on a 2 hour flight, as the craft is out of napkins.

The drinks machine really sums up the Sirius Cybernetics user experience.  It's designed to give you what you desire, but gives you something that you find filthy and disgusting.  When you then complaint to the machine about this, it's so sure of it's programming it ascertains that you must be in error, and not tasting the drink correctly.  The automated programming and clever systems take prescidence – and so you're not able to simply ask “I would like water” or “I would like tea”.  Because the Sirius Cybernetics Corperation who programmed the machine knew better.

In software we can be guilty of this a bit.  Systems where we're trying to be clever, and lock out the user can be incredibly frustrating to use.  Of course sometimes “locking out the user” a bit is needed for security if it's about providing access to a service.  But how many times have you heard someone go “I just want to do ??? and it won't let me!!!”

Microsoft can be a bit guilty of this at times.  I get the feeling the Apple experience is even worse – you're not allowed to “fiddle” or change things, because Steve Jobs doesn't want you to worry about it.

It makes you as a user feel like a bit like Oliver asking for more.

* The TV series Red Dwarf would go one further than intelligent lifts with it's Talkie Toaster - an AI toaster, which is obviously obsessed with toasting bread.  And thus tries to steer any conversation in that direction.  It seems funny, but in the 80s we were obsessed with putting computers in everything, never really wondering "does it actually need one" - Talkie Toaster was a wake up call ...

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