About my academic goal

I want to make technologies more usable.

Technology gets more and more advanced. The state of the art evolves exponentially. It is unimaginable what we can build several years from now… we only know that it will exceed all expectations.

However, technology gets more complicated too. Cellphones, cars, computers, ATMs, PDAs: only “technolligent” people survive in today’s world. This is very clear when we talk about computers: People buy a computer knowing that they will need extensive training using it. At the same time, they know that they will fall on the wrong side of the “digital divide” when they don’t.

Why do we expect people to adapt themselves to technology? We’re becoming the “slaves of technology”, not because we are dependent of it (that I can live with), but because it expects us to adapt to its behavior!

This kind of seems to be the fault of the engineers making the products. They want to make better, stronger, faster things with more options and new features. But they often forget about the user!

That is a problem that has to be solved step by step. And we can gain most at the “User Interface”, the part of a technology that people use when they interact with the technology. In my opinion, many of UIs are complex, illogical, cluttered… unusable.

A bad user interface is the reason why you hate your VCR. Why you have to press “start” to shut down your PC. Why you have to go through several menus with unwanted options to get to the most basic features of a certain product.

Why then, are most interfaces so badly designed? Well, for one thing, the designer/engineer has a completely different mind-set as the user. “Know thy user” is the Fundamental Law of Usability. But getting to know your user takes more than attending “VCR burning parties” or “Cellphone-related nervous breakdown aftercare groups”. It requires:

  • Knowledge of psychology
  • User testing methodology
  • Common sense
Poster on Cognitive Modeling Tools for User Interface Design (click to enlarge)

Psychology gives us several problems. Psychologists are always in arguing about conceptual problems. Of course, the workings of the mind are interesting, and studying them will give us a lot of new knowledge, but what can we do with this knowledge? The engineers that want to use psychology to make usable products are held back because psychology is incompatible with their needs: fast, cheap and easy solutions!

User testing is no good either. It takes time and money, and the results have to be interpreted (using the damned psychology). Furthermore, most engineers have never heard of a t-test: they lack knowledge of psychological research methods.

Common sense. Doesn’t seem to be a problem, but it is. As told before, the engineers have a different mind-set than the users. For instance: They know what a product can do, and invent a menu structure around it. The user has to to do it the other way around, and derive the functions from the menu. There’s a difference between “finding an icon for a function” and “finding out what a function with this icon does”. That’s why testing with naive users is so important!

Learning how to use psychology, how to do user testing, and how to get a better common sense is a fairly noble goal. But I want more. Of course, I first want to learn it myself. But after that I want to try to make this process a little easier. I want to make tools for UI designers that help them overcome their problems and guide them in making usable interfaces.

How? Well, you can read that in “About my adventure”

About me

Hi there!

My name is Bart Knijnenburg. I’m a 22yo student from The Netherlands, home of legalized drugs, gay marriage and prostitution. Don’t worry, I’m not chauvinistic :D.

In 2002 I went to Eindhoven University of Technology to do a BSc in Innovation Sciences. IS basically teaches you what it takes to make a technology into a succesful innovation. You specialize in one technological topic (in my case Computer Science), and besides that you take courses in psychology, ethics, economics, sociology, ergonomics, etc., because it’s the social and human factors that really make the difference (at least, so we believe).

In 2005, when I finished my BSc, I thought it was time for something completely different. Therefore I did a board year at Intermate together with 4 other fruitcakes.

I always get so tired when I talk about myself, so I’m going to stop now. If you’re a real loser, you can read my resume if you like.

The only question that remains now is: “why does this idiot think he’s cool enhough to have his own weblog?”
You can read the answer above.