Who knows Best?

I was thinking about what’s wrong with Sierra (see my previous post), and I realized that it mostly sounded like someone asked a CS100 student for a list of things they disliked about C. This immediately led me to consider if that’s ever a good idea. Should we ever ask users — especially novice users — about how to improve a product. While my initial reaction is, “definitely not”; my second reaction is more considered. There are times and places where the opinion of experienced users is deficient — they don’t expect anything but what their used to getting. But the danger with novices is that they make short-sighted decisions based on an incomplete understanding of the problem.

It’s moments like these that I ponder the recent success of Apple. Apparently, a couple of people (Jobs & Ive) guided them to the top of the gadget industry based on their insights. It appears to me, what you really need is the input of a few people with very good “taste”. Jobs had great taste in gadgets. Ives has great design taste. To design a new programming language, I’d want the input of people with great programming taste. I have ideas of who I’d ask among my friends, but I wouldn’t go on my tastes. I’m too ingrained in the C/Objective-C camp to be of any use to anyone in terms of new paradigms in programming.

My background and experience tell me that design by committee, or worse design by focus-group, does not produce great solutions. At best, “design by mob”, produces large and possibly diverse solutions. A quick look at most open-source projects/fork-fests shows the results of such efforts.

Any design effort requires two things: great insight and clear leadership. A sufficient amount of one can make up for a minor lack in the other, but eventually both need to be there.

Computers, Cars, and a Tale of Two Apples

Here’s great article about the ideological path from open computing to computing appliance and the two Steve’s of Apple that were at the vanguard of pushing both ends of that spectrum:

Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and the long road to the iPad. – By Tim Wu – Slate Magazine.

I have long contended that computers have the same trajectory as automobiles. Initially the domain of cutting-edge enthusiasts, moving through eras of: mass-production (Model-T v. IBM PC), large-differentiation (trucks/cars v. laptops/desktops), into customization (hot-rods v. case-mods). Eventually, the car market evolved into what we have today, a highly commoditized market were owners are are unlikely to tinker with the vehicle and depend on specialists to maintain and repair their car. Rather than increase the performance of their car through tuning, adjustment, or upgrades, consumers choose to just purchase new cars. The same is probably now true of computer users as well. It has been common industry knowledge that a segment of the population only upgrades operating system by purchasing a new computer.

As a thoughtful and long-time computer user, I applaud the design and functionality that modern Apple products represent. As a long time computer enthusiast, I bemoan the increasing commoditization of computing. As a computer science researcher and educator, I worry over the fact that our students seem to be increasingly the former rather than the latter.

Vintage Star Wars Posters

I ran across these while looking around Zazzle last night, and frankly I just had to order one.  Modified from vintage WPA travel posters of the 30’s, these Star Wars posters just hit too many pressure points for me not to love them.  I ordered the Hoth version, but really both are great.  I’m not sure why they never got around to the Coursant version they planned.  More importantly where’s the obvious Endor variant made in conjunction with the creators of  this poster.

Of iPads, Couriers, and Failure

Apple is about to release the iPad (April 3, 2010), and while I don’t know if it’s going to be a huge success, I think they’ve figured out some problems that others are still struggling with. For instance, I just had a look at Gizmodo’s coverage of the “Microsoft Courier” (what a new font, really?). Ok, it’s a prototype tablet computer — and it’s a failure. At least, it will be if it ships in the form that Gizmodo presents. I think it solves next to no problems, but is extremely limited compared it’s competition that it can’t succeed. I could compare it to the iPad, but I’m pretty sure that’s not even a fair fight. No it’s real competition are netbooks, and they’re so much nicer it’s not even funny.

To really understand my point, have a look at the galleries for each device. The iPad’s is here, and the Courier can be seen here. See any differences?

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Everyday Design: Ovens

My future brother-in-law Chris pointed out that we’re getting so used to well-designed objects (thanks Apple) that, when something isn’t well designed, it sticks out like a sore thumb. While putting the roast in the oven, it became abundantly clear to me that ovens need some fresh thought. The design hasn’t really changed in what — 60 years?

For gosh sake, someone add a thermocouple and read-out so I know exactly what temperature the oven is at, and have some idea how soon it’ll be preheated. While we’re at it, how about an independent temperature probe and readout to stick into my roast so I don’t open the oven just to check if it’s done.

On second thought, someone get me a patent lawyer.