When Designing IT Systems, Get Beyond What You Know

If you have to explain your IT system, back to the drawing board you go

Science fiction sometimes offers oddly flawed images of the future. Robert Heinleins 1953 novel "Starman Jones," for example, depicted faster-than-light starship travel—with flight deck officers toggling binary numbers directly into their computers, using values they looked up in books.

Heinleins scenario wasnt just an amusing failure of foresight. It says a lot about peoples expectations of computers in the 1950s compared with our quite-different manner of using digital systems today. It wasnt hard to imagine that the giant "electronic brains" of Heinleins time would get smaller and faster; it was pretty much unthinkable, though, that something as costly as electronic memory would ever be used for static data such as logarithm tables.

As things turned out, people were willing to pay for fast data access. The first two decades of personal computing, as Ive noted here before, saw processing speeds grow at 30 percent per year while desktop mass storage demand grew at 80 percent per year. I made that calculation, moreover, in August 2001. Three months later, Apple shipped the first 5GB iPod, with successive models capacity growing at (so far) 100 percent per year. And an iPod isnt desktop storage but something you can actually forget youre carrying.

For purposes of comparison, a person with a 40GB iPod in his or her pocket escapes the burden of a stack of 1950s-style punch cards roughly 56 miles tall. People who have actually dealt with boxes of such cards (myself included) may be mentally scarred for life: We have to try hard to think about storage in terms of thousands of songs, played back from a chunk of plastic that users can wear on a string around their necks. The more we "know," the harder it becomes to forget the parts that are no longer true.

Science-fiction movies and TV series are also rich in images—sometimes quirkily flawed—of "the future" as seen from 30 or 40 years before. Often noted, for example, are the ashtrays at the consoles in supposedly late-20th-century settings such as the control rooms in "Lost in Space." No smoking? Whats that? (TV even puts its spin on present-day technology, as Jim Rapoza observes in his column on Page 51.)

Overall, though, I feel as if movies and shows have done rather well in capturing the look of whats to come: The communicators used on Gene Roddenberrys first "Star Trek" series, for example, bear an uncanny resemblance to the first cellular phones that were actually popular with ordinary people.

The difference, I suspect, between Heinlein and Roddenberry is that Heinlein could take a paragraph to describe what Roddenberry had to convey in the blink of an eye: You had to recognize a "Star Trek" communicator when you saw one. Those TV props were therefore designed to look like the devices wed have if technology werent a barrier to convenience.

The Roddenberry principle, if I may call it that, was at work when Jeff Hawkins designed the first PalmPilot by carving out a block of wood—the size of something that hed be willing to carry—and pretending to use it in everyday situations. Hed pretend to scribble on its face with a stylus, for example, a process he found much more comfortable than pretending to talk to it—even if he imagined perfect speech recognition capability. He therefore developed Graffiti, rather than pouring time and money into speech technology.

Peoples need to understand technology on sight is recognized by NASA, as well as by "Star Trek." "If you want to have a maximum effect on the design of a new engineering system, learn to draw," said NASA scientist Georg von Tiesenhausen in the dictum called von Tiesenhausens Law of Engineering Design. "Engineers always wind up designing the vehicle to look like the initial artists concept," von Tiesenhausen famously explained.

The same may be true for the design of your own IT future. If a system has to be explained to people, thats a clue that its design is driven by what you "know" rather than by what people immediately recognize as useful. In the long run, the former will look silly; the latter will someday seem obvious.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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