Daily Archives: June 16, 2010

The Dangers of Usability

In a previous entry called “The Designer Lens,” I said there was a part of me that loved usability. I loved it when things were easy and intuitive to use. I also said that it could be dangerous, but I never fleshed out that idea. I was thinking about a concept of Government 2.0 where technological tools can help us interact with government more easily. However, there’s always a huge danger of mixing easy with government. Government is not easy because humans are complicated. Political solutions that seem simple are often reductive and so fail miserably.

Let’s use a programming paradigm as an example of being reductive. DRY stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” Code shouldn’t be duplicated. In America, we have duplication all over the place. Federal government conflicts with local government. Congress is bicameral. We have three branches of government that are supposed to fight each other. Government is far from efficient. However, that’s a feature, not a bug (to extend the computer metaphor). Government requires all this friction to prevent a concentration of power. If someone gets too much power, this person can become a dictator. DRY is a bad idea for government. (It’s also why we shouldn’t want government to be like a corporation, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

I also wanted to discuss something that I came across in The Shallows. There’s an experiment with users trying to solve a puzzle using a helpful computer program versus an unhelpful program, which “provided no hints or other guidance” (214). The ones using the bare-bones program are better off: “In the end, those using the unhelpful program were able to solve the puzzle more quickly and with fewer wrong moves. They also reached fewer impasses — states in which no further moves were possible — than did the people using the helpful software. The findings indicated, as van Nimwegen reported, that those using the unhelpful software were better able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while those using the helpful software tended to rely on simple trail and error” (215). Helpful software dumbs us down. We export our problem-solving skills to the computer and forget to think.

The idea of expanding democracy via software can be very seductive. After all, the web opened the floodgates for media. It lowered the barriers; anyone can publish. Maybe we could get more people involved in government if we had the right software. What if we voted via text message?

But there’s a very real danger of alienation. Take facebook and friendship, for example. Instead of connecting with friends, we may merely passively follow them through news feed. Technology becomes a substitute for real interaction. So there may be a similar danger with government and software. We may become absorbed in our technological world and ignore our neighbors. By staying in digital places, technology can alienate us from real places. Community cannot exist without place and local government is absurd without community.

I’m not saying technology should be avoided, but there’s definitely a dangerous tendency within myself that I have to fight: That I might think of technology as a panacaea for participation.

There’s also the problem with the philosophy of making government more “usable.” (This is a philosophy I’ve never heard espoused by anyone and I’ve only pondered on my own, so far.) It may seduce one into thinking that government is easy. It never is.

The Designer Lens – my blog entry