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The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity

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Despite enormous investments in computers over the last twenty years, productivity in the very service industries at which they were aimed virtually stagnated everywhere in the world. If computers are not making businesses, organizations, or countries more productive, then why are we spending so much time and money on them? Cutting through a raft of technical data, Thomas L Despite enormous investments in computers over the last twenty years, productivity in the very service industries at which they were aimed virtually stagnated everywhere in the world. If computers are not making businesses, organizations, or countries more productive, then why are we spending so much time and money on them? Cutting through a raft of technical data, Thomas Landauer explains and illustrates why computers are in trouble and why massive outlays for computing since 1973 have not resulted in comparable productivity payoffs. Citing some of his own successful research programs, as well as many others, Landauer offers solutions to the problems he describes. While acknowledging that mismanagement, organizational barriers, learning curves, and hardware and software incompatibilities can play a part in the productivity paradox, Landauer targets individual utility and usability as the main culprits. He marshals overwhelming evidence that computers rarely improve the efficiency of the information work they are designed for because they are too hard to use and do too little that is sufficiently useful. Their many features, designed to make them more marketable, merely increase cost and complexity. Landauer proposes that emerging techniques for user-centered development can turn the situation around. Through task analysis, iterative design, trial use, and evaluation, computer systems can be made into powerful tools for the service economy. Landauer estimates that the application of these methods would make computers have the same enormous impact on productivity and standard of living that were the historical results of technological advances in energy use (the steam engine, electric motors), automation in textiles and other manufacture, and in agriculture. He presents solid evidence for this claim, and for a huge benefit-to-cost ratio for user-centered design activities backed by descriptions of how to do these necessary things, of promising applications for better computer software designs in business, and of the relation of user-centered design to business process reengineering, quality, and management.


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Despite enormous investments in computers over the last twenty years, productivity in the very service industries at which they were aimed virtually stagnated everywhere in the world. If computers are not making businesses, organizations, or countries more productive, then why are we spending so much time and money on them? Cutting through a raft of technical data, Thomas L Despite enormous investments in computers over the last twenty years, productivity in the very service industries at which they were aimed virtually stagnated everywhere in the world. If computers are not making businesses, organizations, or countries more productive, then why are we spending so much time and money on them? Cutting through a raft of technical data, Thomas Landauer explains and illustrates why computers are in trouble and why massive outlays for computing since 1973 have not resulted in comparable productivity payoffs. Citing some of his own successful research programs, as well as many others, Landauer offers solutions to the problems he describes. While acknowledging that mismanagement, organizational barriers, learning curves, and hardware and software incompatibilities can play a part in the productivity paradox, Landauer targets individual utility and usability as the main culprits. He marshals overwhelming evidence that computers rarely improve the efficiency of the information work they are designed for because they are too hard to use and do too little that is sufficiently useful. Their many features, designed to make them more marketable, merely increase cost and complexity. Landauer proposes that emerging techniques for user-centered development can turn the situation around. Through task analysis, iterative design, trial use, and evaluation, computer systems can be made into powerful tools for the service economy. Landauer estimates that the application of these methods would make computers have the same enormous impact on productivity and standard of living that were the historical results of technological advances in energy use (the steam engine, electric motors), automation in textiles and other manufacture, and in agriculture. He presents solid evidence for this claim, and for a huge benefit-to-cost ratio for user-centered design activities backed by descriptions of how to do these necessary things, of promising applications for better computer software designs in business, and of the relation of user-centered design to business process reengineering, quality, and management.

39 review for The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Carl Gauger

    A good summary of this book is found on the flyleaf, which displays a New Yorker cartoon--a scene in restaurant, the waiters serving everyone the same dish with the explanation "Sorry folks--it's not what you ordered, but everyone is getting fettuccine until we fix the computer." Thomas Landauer has produced yet another book lamenting and documenting the failures and foibles of computer technology--no surprises here, although this is an excellent book in that respect. But what he has also done i A good summary of this book is found on the flyleaf, which displays a New Yorker cartoon--a scene in restaurant, the waiters serving everyone the same dish with the explanation "Sorry folks--it's not what you ordered, but everyone is getting fettuccine until we fix the computer." Thomas Landauer has produced yet another book lamenting and documenting the failures and foibles of computer technology--no surprises here, although this is an excellent book in that respect. But what he has also done is marshaled a tremendous amount of data and analysis to challenged a prevailing myth that, despite the galling lack of usability, computers are--after all--useful and efficient. In effect, so the argument goes, we should live with the inconvenience and annoyance because of the benefits that computers bring to the bottom line. I won't try to summarize his evidence here--read the book--but using the numbers, Landauer rather convincingly shows that, per dollar spent on IT, actual increase of productivity is not borne out by the evidence (Yes, I know the book is over ten years old, but my bet is that the trend has not reversed significantly). This appraisal is not universal--there have been some notable exceptions, including telecommunications--but the evidence for general productivity resulting from computer application to business, the results are disappointing. Certainly the argument can be made against a measurement that only takes productivity into account. In design, for example, CAD technology can do things that are not otherwise possible, so the efficiency argument should not be taken as the whole, but the persistence of the myth that computers always make things more efficient makes this argument necessary. \n \nOne of the bad things about technology is how it tends to bind us to itself (I am not attributing intelligence to technology here--only using a figure of speech). The problem is that the technological systems have very little tolerance for deviation. As long as everything is working according to plan it's great. But the slightest disruption creates enormous inefficiency. The system is designed for the machine, not the machine for human service, because the technical problems are solved in favor of the technology, not the human element--which should be the rationale for the system in the first place. Yes, I know that technological systems have a service in reducing costs, etc., and have a certain efficiency that benefits people. The point is that there is often no disciplined effort to correct the inefficiencies in favor of the human element and, when push comes to shove, the human element always gets involved and the shortcomings of the system are obvious. Then, of c ourse, humans are blamed for "creating inefficiencies." \n \nThe argument is not that we should abandon computer technology. Rather that we should stop unquestioningly attributing to it the magical quality of always being the best solution, and even more that we solve the technological problems in terms of real use by and for people. There are some things that computers are really good at--these should be exploited. There are other things that they are really bad at--these are the things we should pay attention to, either by not applying them for these tasks to begin with, or by designing our systems with work-arounds with more tolerance for the human.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marty Tormoe Yo

    Landmark book about designing computer software. Heavily based on the concept that validity is only found in testing and that often your gut instinct is wrong. A poster-book of usability testing success stories. Landmark book about designing computer software. Heavily based on the concept that validity is only found in testing and that often your gut instinct is wrong. A poster-book of usability testing success stories.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bricoleur (David) Soul

  4. 5 out of 5

    Leah Simons

  5. 4 out of 5

    John

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Holloway

  7. 5 out of 5

    Laurie Lee

  8. 5 out of 5

    Stacy

  9. 5 out of 5

    John

  10. 4 out of 5

    Marcin Wichary

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yaseed

  12. 5 out of 5

    Keith Carangelo

  13. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

  14. 5 out of 5

    David

  15. 5 out of 5

    John

  16. 4 out of 5

    Harlan

  17. 5 out of 5

    Randall E Hiemforth

  18. 5 out of 5

    Bill de hÓra

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bill Ferster

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jim Van Fleet

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nma

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ching

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jon

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Arthur

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gwern

  27. 4 out of 5

    Anca

  28. 5 out of 5

    Frank Spencer

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lindley White

  30. 4 out of 5

    Homoionym

  31. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  32. 5 out of 5

    Pau Sola

  33. 4 out of 5

    Bill Ingram

  34. 5 out of 5

    John

  35. 4 out of 5

    Jay

  36. 4 out of 5

    Ash Moran

  37. 5 out of 5

    Azadeh

  38. 5 out of 5

    Charles Kerns

  39. 4 out of 5

    Ricardo Signes

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