Doug Engelbart: keyset, mice and men. Complexity in interaction design.

Doug Engelbart: keyset, mice and men. Complexity in interaction design.

In 1968, during what’s come to be called “the demo of all demos”, Doug Engelbart introduced – among others – a chorded keyboard – a five-button peripheral to be used as input device instead of keyboard.

In a recent episode of 99% invisible, Roman recalls the story of that invention conceived to shape the future of our experience with computers and than abandoned because the future was too complicated, not easy to be used and so not marketable.

Thus, beyond its historical value, the podcast is a chance to think about the role of complexity and ease of use in interaction design:

Even Doug Engelbart realized that learning the keyset was difficult. But for Engelbart, ease of use wasn’t the top priority. He wanted the computer inputs to be as powerful possible, and that required some complexity. He imagined that consumers would learn how to use the mouse and keyset slowly over time, like how one learns to operate a car.

[…]

These complicated ideas weren’t particularly popular or marketable, and by the late 1970s, Engelbart’s team ran out of funding […] Many of Engelbart’s researchers migrated to Xerox PARC […] And that’s how, in 1979, Steve Jobs first saw the mouse (and keyset) when visited PARC.

[…]

Englebart used to compare the sleek, simplified Apple products to a tricycle. You don’t need any special training to operate a tricycle, and that’s fine if you’re just going to go around the block. If you’re trying to go up a hill or go a long distance, you want a real bike. The kind with gears and brakes– the kind that takes time to learn how to steer and balance on.

Englebart thought that because the consumer market prioritizes simple and “user-friendly” devices over more complex and “learnable” devices, they’ve only been selling us tricycles. Although, without people like Jobs, perhaps only a few people would be on bikes, and the rest of us would be too intimidated to get on wheels at all.

[…]

The best design may be the one that gives us a clear path to learning if we choose to. Put another way, designs that helps us transition from tricycle-riding to bicycle-riding, so that if we want, we can choose to go up some really big hills.

You can learn more on design and complexity by reading Don Norman, Living with complexity.

Some other extra resource on simplicity.

Find out more about Engelbart chorded keyboard.