Giving Technology a Human Face
An Interview with Ed Scott

Inner Explorations: Tell us something about yourself and your work.

Ed: I have a degree in engineering, 15 US Patents, designed a computer used on Navy submarines, and worked at Hughes, Sony, Walt Disney and JPL. I have a BFA degree in Film from Art Center College of Design and a BSEE degree from Cal Poly Pomona. Within a decade of graduating from Cal Poly almost everything I learned there was obsolete because technology moves along at an obscene pace. The things that distinguished me from other engineers were what I learned at art school, almost none of which have become obsolete.


Inner Explorations: What we want to talk to you about is how technology in the form of computers, cell phones, etc., negatively impact our lives because they are not adequately designed in human terms, that is, ease of training, ease of use and repair, recycleability and so forth.

Ed: One of the things that irks me is when people are intimidated by technology and think all problems are their fault. I had the good fortune to work with human factors engineers at Hughes and Sony. One of the concepts I adopted was from Einstein's statement, "Things should be as simple as they can be and no simpler." Another concept was that overloaded user interfaces were confusing and the more overloaded they were the more complex they would seem for users. I think these can be applied to most technology. Cell phones in all but their receive and make a call utility are really dreadful tools for humans to have to use. I refuse to learn more than how to make and receive calls. Computers and their software are often far too complex. I Beta site tested Windows NT and used Microsoft products for years but now in my old age I much prefer Apple Macs and software because they seem simpler to use. They feel more like tools that let me do the work I want to accomplish without constantly making me deal with computer stuff. Macs are far from perfect, but better.

Too often designers do what is good for the hardware or software and not for the user. I feel we are becoming slaves of our technology when technology ought to merely be a useful tool in support of our lives. My goal now is to use a reasonable amount of technology ... just enough to get the job done. Wildlife, lightning storms, fall color, etc. are far too important to get bogged down in excess technology.


Inner Explorations: It seems like you are moving in the direction of what could be called a philosophy of technological simplicity.

Ed: Right. We should avoid using more technology than the job requires. There is a beauty in tools that do exactly what they should, as well as they can. People are inundated with technology and complexity today. We need to rediscover that "editing" is the path to beauty and utility.

Too many people become narrowly focused and strive to know an enormous amount of technology along a very narrow path. These people are invariably experts at making things complex. What we need is designers with the wisdom to make things simple.

Too often the marketing department drives design resulting in a plethora of questionable features. Their gold standard is any feature the competition hasn't got.


Inner Explorations: What can be done to address this problem?

Ed: I think there is a need for feature determination or rather just good product design based more upon actual user needs and plenty of input from human factors people. I wonder if this is not important enough for the people who do it to have their own department, to be recognized separately from marketing or engineering. A major part of their training should involve making things simple and intuitive, so simple that most people including the elderly and people with disabilities could use the product without reading a manual.

Every product that goes on the consumer market, should be tested by consumers, including the elderly and people with disabilities, for ease of use. Until keeping it simple becomes a more important goal than rampant featuritus, I think things are only going to get worse.

Technology is seductive and too many designers see their role as one of incorporating as many clever features as possible. They lack the big picture perspective of creating the most useful product for the end user.

Some time ago I went to a computer designer conference. One of the speakers asked these folks how many people had VCRs at home that were blinking "12:00." Nearly every hand in the audience went up. If the people who design the junk won't use it what does it say about our society? The government refuses to recognize the reality of Global Warming and yet it has announced plans to people Mars. I think that pretty well summarizes the degree of the problem.