Thursday, February 02, 2006

PC Design

The transition from office to home

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, October 8, 1997 -- [Image]
Efficiency expert Ratbert to a bemused Dilbert,
as both stare at a computer screen: "Those words in
boldface look like they're sucking up the ol'
electricity." (From "Casual Has Gone Too Far," a
collection of Dilbert cartoons by Scott Adams.) It's no
wonder that the PC is an important prop in the satirical
corporate environment of the popular cartoon, "Dilbert."
It's a product that has fallen victim to a pathetic
office aesthetic that encourages sterility and grayness.
(Or shall I say, "putty-ness"?)

While it's true that some PC manufacturers are starting
to bring more innovative designs to new computers, the PC
hasn't evolved from its piecemeal components -- it's
barely one step removed from an ugly TV set connected to
a pared-down typewriter. In the workplace, where the PC
first entered many people's lives, many environments are
contrived so that the objects say, "you're no different
that the guy in the next cubicle." Unless you work in a
creative field (in which case you probably have the
blessing of using a Mac, design-wise one step ahead of
its IBM-compatible counterparts) the boss probably wants
the kind of uniformity that will create the illusion of
an industrial environment, with no distractions or
splashes of color. If one office brought in a PC that
somehow looked like it was styled or meant for an actual
human being as opposed to a robot, the manager might be
perceived as being frivolous. Let's not forget the
puritanical-work-ethic-turned capitalist credo. The PC
isn't friendly? Good! A hardcore work environment likes
its PCs awkward, cryptic and nondescript.

Since their introduction into the market, PCs have been
identified mainly by the description of their guts: 486
or Pentium, how fast, how large a hard drive. In general,
industrial design is often mistakenly perceived as being
merely decorative, introducing extraneous styling or
unnecessary gadgetry -- a distraction and a waste of
resources. What's ironic is that the PC's lack of good
design has made it more difficult for the average worker
to use, so an attempt at bringing seriousness and
efficiency to the office resulted in a real waste of time
and resources. PC support systems comprised of highly
skilled computer "experts" were created to service the
needs of people who had trouble operating their machines.
Many of those calls for help were in response to simple
needs, like locating the on switches or installing

Of course, these hard-to-use office tools gave rise to
the revenge-of-the-nerds geek counterculture in the
American workplace. People who understood and got along
with the enigmatic computer were suddenly perceived as
being more valuable assets to the office. This gave some
a reason to actually defend the sorry state of PC

The status quo of bad design continued until the PC
started becoming truly personal and moved into the home.
This meant that the market would be driven by human
needs, and not by the decisions of some pasty,
desensitized purchasing agent in a corporate office.
Currently there's a struggle for the computer to find its
identity, both in its transition from office to home and
in its new role as multimedia communications device.
Whereas people may not have a strong opinion about what
they use in the office, consumers will resist investing
in the hardware for home use unless they feel that it is
designed for them.

As in so many situations in life, we might benefit from
taking our cues from children. They're not afraid to show
their enjoyment of small victories and the subtle,
sensual pleasures that happen during interaction with our
created environment. They have no shame about enjoying
knobs, switches, colors, textures and sounds, and they
demand that the tools they use be fun and easy to work
with. Wondertools, the Compaq/Fisher-Price
hardware/software creation for kids is a step in the
right direction. Though it still doesn't address a
redesign of the entire computer (the hardware replaces
the keyboard only) it shows a willingness to rethink PC
design, rather than accept the idea that it must
necessarily be an impersonal, utilitarian device.

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This column is an exclusive.


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