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The author, Navneet Alang, does a selfie photobooth (Navneet Alang)
The author, Navneet Alang, does a selfie photobooth (Navneet Alang)

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Should we give up control to make computers easier to use? Add to ...

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Computing is a mess. For far too many people, even the world of smartphones and tablets is a confusing miasma of arcane terminology, competing standards and overly complex interfaces.

Globe and Mail Update Mar. 22 2014, 12:54 AM EDT

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But is the problem in the devices we use, or in the data they use? In his onstage interview at this week’s TED conference in Vancouver, Google CEO Larry Page said that for all the advances of iPhones and tablets, “your computer doesn’t know where you are, what you know, what you’re doing. It’s still very clunky.”

What Mr. Page is suggesting represents a change from how we usually think about making computers easier to understand: that simplification isn’t enough; that instead, a computer should know what you want before you do.

But if Google is asking the right question – how do we make technology more accessible? – its solution deserves some circumspection. After all, a context-aware computer that can predict what you need is one that, inevitably, also requires your information – the same data that Google needs to drive its business of advertising. Perhaps if our concern is making technology easier to use, the answer is elsewhere: that rather than handing over control to large companies and the cloud, we should empower users through better design and more choice.

Digital devices have inarguably become easier to use over time. Even the change from once-ubiquitous Windows XP to a touchscreen smartphone is remarkable, and the many videos across the Internet showing both the very young and the very old taking to an iPad like a duck takes to water are a testament to how much simpler things have become.

All the same, even an iPhone can still be confusing to the average user. Whether the realization that each app has its own interface, or too-detailed settings, or the need to update everything periodically, or the simple fact that each device has its own grammar that you need to learn, the ideal of intuitive, pick-up-and-play technology is still a ways off.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the large tech players are all invested in making you use their stuff – which means we’re seeing a return to the days where certain services only work on certain devices. Apple’s messaging doesn’t work with Google’s; Google doesn’t offer its apps on new Windows platforms; and even the things that do work across everything often reserve the best features for certain hardware. On top of that, using all of these platforms requires users to remember account names and passwords for five, 10, or even 20 services. Often, “mess” is exactly the right word for our technology.

Do we thus want things to be made simplified and automated? In part, of course: A computer that seamlessly gives you what you want is a boon. Google’s approach, such as found in the Google Now user interface (on many Android-based smartphones and tablets) and new products like its smartwatch software, provides information contextually by keeping track of what you’re doing. It knows where you are and what you’ve been doing, so it can tell you what the traffic is like for the drive home or remind you about your flight change, even before you ask it. That kind of predictive, contextual information is undoubtedly useful.

Yet, for a computer to operate seamlessly, it must also know things about you. In effect, it’s a transaction that’s at the core of many digital services: Give up your privacy and get convenience in return. It’s also perhaps telling that if you do want to change the settings for Google Now, it’s hidden behind layers of obtuse settings.

All of this is to say: Our systems may be getting smarter at guessing what we want, but our interfaces themselves are still obscure and too complicated. It’s a real problem. The answer can’t just lie in the Faustian bargain of being tracked by “the cloud.” Instead, what we also need to focus on is how we actually interact with technology – that design should make both interaction and user choice more obvious and simple.

Surprisingly, Microsoft has provided a good example here. Although its Windows 8 software has at least for now compounded the problem of usability (because it confusingly mixes a touch-based interface with one for a mouse and keyboard), in the shift toward a bright, tile-based look lies a positive step. A touch-screen system that abandons bad replicas of physical objects, and instead focuses on consistent, simple to read digital interfaces is the way to make computers more approachable.

Digital technology is like a language, and its grammar is one that we need to make more apparent in order to make it more accessible. Necessarily, then, education is also a key component here, as is some degree of standardization. But in making the visual and interactive dimension of technology the key, we return to what should be the focus on any emphasis on usability: empowering individuals to use technology without sacrificing their privacy in the process.

Navneet Alang writes regularly about technology and culture for The Globe and Mail.

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