What is the purpose of a computer? In my own mind, the purpose of a computer is to do what I want when I want it. To think, to deliberate, to waste time is my prerogative, and my expectation is that a computer will be prompt and reliable in following my commands. I do not generally play graphics intense games, I do not make heavy demands on my software, I simply expect consistency, reliability, and speed of execution. I expect to be able to type a message speedily and send it on its merry way, I expect to be able to clink on a link to a news story and have the link load up speedily and without demur, and I expect to be able to click from tab to tab without freezing my computer. None of my requests are all that complicated.
It therefore bothers me that my computer acts as if my requests are unreasonable. Whatever scripts are going on in the background are of no concern to me and no interest if that which I type or click is not executed. It appears that in their desire to create immensely clever websites and programs, that computer programmers have often forgotten that their most important job is to create programs and websites that work for the people using them. All of the clever scripts, amazing graphics, and features are completely useless if the program or website will not work reliably. Why don’t programmers realize this? What kind of tunnel vision exists that causes people to lose sight of the most important aspects of what they do because they are obsessed with changing their layout to keep it fresh or adding new features (most of which that users like myself will probably never use).
Perhaps I am being overly harsh on computer programmers. For it is not they alone that face the tunnel vision of dealing with ephemeral or ornamental issues, letting them cloud up and hinder the essential workings in exchange for a long list of often useless and occasionally irritating “features.” Any sort of design work can get too tied up in making “gingerbread” that might look appealing in a sales brochure or might be like crown molding in a house–potentially beautiful but hardly essential. We can all lose sight of the essential in any aspect of human creations because of the shininess of the ornamental.
In fact, one cannot look at computer programs fairly without comparing them to other artistic endeavors where the ornamental has sometimes taken precedence over the essential. The same tendency is present in music where an auto-tune sound or a flourish of string instruments may hide the fact that a singer can’t hold a note or that the lyrics lack any kind of moral worth. The same tendency is present in buildings where shiny new appliances or crown molding might hide a building with serious structural flaws hidden by all the glitter, or bad plumbing. The same tendency is present in car shopping where features like keyless ignition might hide an underpowered engine, reliability problems, or poor gas mileage in town driving.
Let us not ourselves become accomplices to this sleight-of-hand trick by being easily distracted by features that we lose sight of essentials ourselves. If we wish for the really important needs to be met, we must hold the feet of designers to the fire by insisting that those needs are met and that no distractions will be accepted. Only if we are ourselves informed and strict-minded users and consumers will companies and designers be forced to major in the majors instead of hiding their serious flaws and laziness with some new feature or attractive looking facade. If we want better quality goods and services, we have to be focused on the truth and less on the slick presentation. It remains to be seen whether we ourselves can remember the essentials so that we may confront others about those key issues with clarity and conviction.