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Technology Serves Humans


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Last week I was watching my aunt Stephanie’s 9 year old twins download MP3s off her computer onto their iPod nanos. Just 9 (okay, soon to be 10) using computer technology for music. I was thinking, what an elegant device – small, simple to use, take anywhere, and at reasonable price. The complete opposite of the high resolution audio files we listen to from the computer.

 

Then, like an epiphany, I recalled the basic design principles I learned in college, along with the history of technology.

 

Has anyone on this forum ever heard the phrase: Technology Serves Humans.

 

Too often on this forum I read where people tend to blame themselves for the shortcomings of technology. When a computer crashes, many people say “I must have done something dumb.” If software is poorly designed, they say “I must be stupid. I can’t play back my downloads.” They turn to the manuals, post questions, and thank Chris (like I do) for his instructions for Dummies to get it right.

 

Audiophiles too concerned with the code being bit perfect - no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not, yes it is! With three clocks in the system, I must be having jitter problems! Never ending comments on Cables, Cables, Cables, and More Cables. Oh, and the real problem is not software, its passive crossovers! All the components involved will keep one’s head spinning for weeks on end – computers, sound cards, cables, DACs, master clocks, external hard drives, backup drives, and at least 5 software packages which are all non user friendly, and just as many type of files to be converted.

 

Think about it for a moment, how more horrible can the situation become! In my opinion, people should never feel like a failure when using technology. It is like being the customer, the user is always right. If software crashes, or is too difficult to use, it is the software designer’s fault. If someone can’t find something on a web site, it is the web designer’s fault. If a circuit design fails to perform it’s the faulty design of the electrical engineers. If no one can discover if the component is on or off, it is the industrial designer’s fault. This doesn’t mean that all these designers must hang their head in shame…they should see this as a learning opportunity! If not, they should rightfully bury their heads in shame and seek a new trade. It seems to me the big difference between good and bad designers is how they handle people struggling with their design.

 

Try to see the situation from this perspective: Technology serves humans. Humans do not serve technology.

 

From another point of view, Technological Design is not Art. Art, like music, is about personal creative expression. It is about the life experience, the emotions, the thoughts and ideas of the artist or composer. It matters very little what observers or listeners do, their activity is not really required, only their appreciation. The practice of Art does not actually require them. It is solely a necessary activity for the artist and the artist alone.

 

Now, design, on the other hand, is all about use. The mass of designers involved with creating audio components, computers, and software, require someone to use, as well as appreciate, what they create. Technological Design doesn’t serve any purpose without people to use it. Actually, the highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do with Art and Music, but that it is well-used.

 

Unlike Art & Music, Design is always contextual. When looking back in time, it matters when a design was created because of the context of its use: what human problem did it solve? And for whom? At what point in time? This is why design is so related to technology, because technology changes so quickly, so must our designs. A great design that worked ten years ago might not even be worth considering today. History is just littered with wonderful designs that are no longer necessary.

 

Great Art and Music, on the other hand, is always in style. We appreciate Beethoven’s compositions even though we have recreated them on recorded media a million times over because it was the toil and expression of a single man. I don’t believe that will ever fade. Great Design is dependent upon the age in which it is created and the human problem which it is meant to solve. But not Great Music. Music, like Art, is timeless.

 

Here is the defining test. When people enjoy Art and Music, they say “I like that." When people enjoy good design, they say “That works well,” and this is not by accident. Great Design is something that truly works well.

 

Here is another maxim to contemplate: The Experience Belongs to the User. Designers do not create experiences, they create artifacts to experience. This subtle distinction makes all the difference, because it places the designer at the service of the user, and not the other way around. Of course, this does not rule out innovation, it doesn’t prevent a designer to leap beyond what is accepted as state-of-the-art. In other words, it just means that the experience of a design doesn’t happen simply because the designer says it does, it happens when a user actually reports it.

 

The ultimate experience is something that happens in the user, and it is theirs. They own it.

 

Great Design is Invisible: A very interesting property of great design is that it is taken for granted. It works so well that we forget the creative effort that was involved to bring it about. Sometimes, like with the lowly spoon, the object is so simplistic that it seems obvious, and we disregard that at one point in history it wasn’t. Other times, like with the automobile, the object is so sophisticated yet easy-to-use that we’re blinded to the fact that millions upon millions of human-hours went into getting it to this point. Every great design has a rich history. And every design has behind it a designer or designers who tried to make the world a better place by solving some problem or another.

 

This brings me to Bad Design which is so obvious because it hurts to use. It is awkward, difficult, and complex; leaving the user bewildered, frustrated, and sometimes even angry. It is a sorry situation and perhaps a great irony of the world, that bad design is much easier to see than good design. It slaps us in the face like a personal insult. However, Great Design, because of its success, is often invisible.

 

Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication: As Saint Exupery said, “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Simplicity is about treading a fine line: knowing what to keep and what to throw away. Oh how it comes across as magic when it works, because none of the complexity is transferred to users… only simplicity. That is the highest achievement for a designer.

 

So, I’m sitting here looking at all the electronic components I’ve assembled just so I can listen to music downloaded over the internet. I cannot help to wonder where is the wonderful user experience, the excellence in design? Where is the simplicity? Where is the single elegant magic music box like the iPod?

 

With a single box solution, plug & play simplicity, at a reasonable price, one could easily have a Blue Ocean Strategy product. I would be surprised to see such a product from a company of audio engineers and designers. They are all too accustomed to swimming with the sharks in the Red Ocean business strategy. I can only assume swimming free into Blue Ocean territory is just too risky and frightening, oh, and requirement of expanded mental capacity might be a little challenging.

 

Anyway, after more than a year, the excitement of computer audio has waned. I now find it more tedious to download a CD than to just slip one into the player, and the sound quality is just as good. Well, not as good as some of the downloaded master files, but close enough to be completely and comfortably tolerable.

 

This is not to say I'm giving up on computer audio. I'll continue to download music I like from the internet, but I'm not wasting any more time with converting CDs. Nor am I investing time and money into any additional hardware and software. For me, it has come time to just sit back and see what develops in the market.

 

Anyway, thanks for reading my unqualified, non verified, highly opinionated rant.

 

Daphne

 

 

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Nah, just kidding! An opening post like that deserves much more than a smartass remark.

 

Very well said. Please feel free to rant (your word, not mine) as much as you like. It's an often mentioned irony in this hobby of ours that we can become so involved in the sound of our systems that we forget about listening to the actual music. A bit unfair, of course, but mixing up audiophilia, computers and teh internets can't be entirely good for your sanity.

 

Sanity's way overrated though, don't you think?

 

I think that another difference you might want to add between good art on the one hand and good design on the other is in the quality of it's execution. A great design shouldn't be flawed - a badly made wheel won't be a wheel for very long - but great art often is, you might even say the flaws are part of the greatness. Examples might be Da Vinci's Last Supper, which started to fall off the wall almost as soon as it was completed. Bob Dylan's voice could hardly be described as pure or angelic, or even particularly in tune. A good song doesn't suddenly become bad when you play it back in lossy mp3 on a cheap stereo. I'm sure there's lots more, and far better examples.

 

Having said that, I always find myself thinking of all the exceptions to these rules and maxims, no matter how good they are. You say that art is personal creative expression, and the audience is not required to do anything more than admire. True, but what is the point of music if nobody gets to hear it? Somehow a much loved song is all the greater because of the shared experience of it's listeners, isn't it? Even from the perspective of the musicians, I would argue that making good music is at least 50% about listening, otherwise the sounds you make won't make any sense.

 

Looking forward to reading other people's thoughts.

 

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Hi Daphne,

 

what a wonderful essay. Do you write for a living? If not, why not?

 

You have also, so very cleverly illuminated one of the reasons that my iPod, and not my stereo system is in constant use. I can live with a slight decrease in "audiophile quality" given the great benefits of having beautiful music available constantly, with good sound quality, and with a system that is as you say "invisible". I am also able to listen to a complete opera (or The Wall) without changing discs. In fact, the iPod has to be one of the great design triumphs ever.

 

Baxtus

 

 

 

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VERY Nice post, Daphne!

 

I have to say that I wouldn't even be bothering with the 'music server' end of personal computers and audio if the iPod hadn't made it so BLATANTLY obvious that doing this computer+audio thing could be so beautiful. I love the utility of iPods - or their other-branded similes - . You are correct in positing that simplicity has not exactly been the byword for 'music servers' for the masses as of yet. I'd also have to say that the iPod is what finally convinced me to return to the Mac after being away from them (and thereby using PC's to produce music for 15 years or so in the interim). If any platform is close to the ease of use that we need for serving up quality music effortlessly, the Mac is IT - IMO, YMMV, etc.

 

I will admit, that after going at it for more (way more) than a year, my enthusiasm for attempting to realize the dream of an easy to use PC-based music server has NOT waned. Quite the opposite. I would have to hastily admit that I am a 'techno-geek' though. Technology has never intimidated me, just made me curious - which in turn encouraged me to spend the time required to master that technology. I realize that this is not the case for many people though. Much effort (or MUCH money) is currently required for the majority of people to be able to get the ultimate experience from computers and music. This will change. I think it will change soon. I also think that this will change for ALL computer platforms. Hang in there. It is coming. Forums like CA will be vocal in demanding it. That is why we are here.

 

EDIT: Also, unfortunately, forums like CA will simultaneously be responsible for spreading disinformation on what is truly needed for people to achieve that goal of the 'easy to use' music server. By nature, internet forums will be populated by people who will good naturedly be eager to offer up advice which is actually nonsense. It will take some time to get enough past that to make the difference that is needed.

 

Hang in there, and Regards,

 

markr

 

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