Lunch With Doug Engelbart

Hyperscope contest lunch.  Doug, me and the other contest winners.
My rss2hp.xsl won me a lunch with Doug Engelbart. I tend to get really excited when presented with an opportunity to hobnob with people I label “seminal thinkers.” Seminal thinkers produce fundamental work that allow others to excel. Because of the fundamental work they do, often entire industries spring up surrounding their work. Today, because of Doug’s team and his work, there are companies that sell mouse pads, monitors, mice, all kinds of video displays, projectors… Often the effects of their contributions are subtle but powerful: I don’t even know a person that doesn’t know how to use a mouse. Do you? (I sometimes muse about who invented the table and how I hope they got royalties off that invention.)

Interestingly, seminal thinkers are typically somewhat modest about their accomplishments. If you read Tim Berners Lee’s blog, he says he was “just doing his part.” Doug was much the same way; he said something to the effect of “my rule was just that this computer thing had to be easy to use.”

Strangely not many people associate Doug’s systems with the phrase “easy to use.” Augment and hyperscope are filled with really strange commands. Strange commands don’t seem easy to use. First of all, no one gets everything right the first time. And secondly, compared to the competing human-computer interfaces at the time, his solutions were easy to use. Finally, the value of a product is determined at the intersection of two variables, not one. If something is easy to use, but doesn’t provide you with enough capability to do your job, it’s worthless. Doug pointed out, using cars as an example, that the value of complex machines was a combination of facility (my word for how easy it is to do something) and capability (the set of things it actually allows you to do). People are willing to pay a lot for cars (his example was more than $1,000) because the capabilities they provide are worth the increased cost (a barrier in facility in obtaining the capabilities). This is how he justified the complex set of commands in Augment. He’s right.

Treat people as experts. People have things they want to do. Most people are willing to spend a lot of time learning something IF it significantly raises their capability to do something. Music s a great example of this: Western music notation is probably one of the worst design mistakes in the entire history of engineering. The instruments we use are flaky, and hard to master. However, people spend years becoming an expert in instruments and various facets of music because the capabilities afforded them are worth the effort. Another example is snowboarding. When people spend a week injuring themselves on the slope, it isn’t exactly pleasant. However, this training gives them the capability to go back for a second week and start gracefully riding down a mountain. Why should computers be any different?

Knowledge workers have lots of things they need to do. Some tools facilitate getting things done better than others. But facility is only part of the equation. If there were a tool that facilitated getting a lot of things done, and also provided increased capability to get them done faster/more efficiently/better, of course people are going to use it. Even if it took a week of errors. After all, people make errors for years while learning to play an instrument; we still have music though.

The next point Doug made regarded competing capabilities. He stressed several times the importance of co-evolution of capabilities. Computers are still very new to us. We don’t know about capabilities that may yet arise as important, and which ones will fail. Many times, we don’t even have a vocabulary for what to call new capabilities. For example, what is the name for the action of taking several websites and putting all the information they contain about doctors on a map? Perhaps the web will facilitate the co-evolution of new capabilities because ideas can be copied and improved in a much faster way than the computing environments of 50 years ago.

We must be careful where we tread. Let’s not create facility for where no capability is needed in society. The experiences we provide must mesh with what society expects the individual to be capable of. It is this capability that we must augment and facilitate at the same time.

I’ve included a picture of the group that met for lunch. I’m second from the left with the darker glasses. Doug is the guy all the way on the left. The picture was taken using Doug’s cell phone.

Finally, I’d like to thank Doug, and the other contest winners, and Eugene, for making the lunch possible. I really enjoyed the time spent with everyone. And a special thanks to Doug for his fundamental and seminal work in human computer interactions.

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