Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Kid Test

Years ago when I was designing software interfaces, I used to design software using what I call the "Mom Test."

As my mother is now in her late 70s and is not a computer user, my thought was that if my mother could figure out how to use it with little guidance, anyone should be able to use it.

Most of the testing my Mom performed was for PC-based software. This was prior to most of the Internet-based software we're used to.

The Mom Test is a remarkably reliable test. I would frequently take software I was developing over to my Mom's home and see if she could figure out how to use it. My use of the Mom Test provided some very good functionality that I would never have been able to come up with on my own.

But I've discovered another test. It occurred while watching my 5-year-old son, who was playing with my mobile phone. My son doesn't yet read and is still working on identifying his letters and numbers, so the use of words does not provide guidance to him.

Of course, he wasn't making phone calls, but he was navigating the menus and applications remarkably effectively.

He was able to move his fingers to bring up menus, scroll through lists, select items and applications and generally make his way through the user interface without much difficulty.

While I was somewhat afraid at what havoc he could wreak with my handheld device, my fascination with observing him allowed me to let him continue.

What fascinated me was how quickly he picked up on how to use the computer. He was clearly more agile than I am, able to pick out icons and menu items, not knowing what they say, but obviously knowing what they do.

It had me think about just how much we've changed from interfaces in which people need to be literate to use them, to interfaces that make extensive use of icons/symbols, color, graphics and, yes, text.

I dubbed this the "Kid Test." If my son can use a device, anyone can.

It also had me reminisce about how my first interactions with computers was with punched cards, paper tape and a teletype. Now, my son is moving his fingers across the surface of a smooth panel and even talking to the computer.

So while one might think of a change to interfaces of symbols, colors, and graphics to be "dumbing down" the way we use things, I see it as a broadening of the user base, including not only young people, but others who may not be able to read our language.

This latter item reminds of the many times I've been in foreign countries and, despite my years of education, I found myself functionally illiterate. There was one time in particular when I was in Russia and, with some guidance, was able to kind of, sort of make out the language, but it was at about the same level as my 5-year-old son is now.

While I don't believe it's possible to reduce every interface to simple pictures and icons, I do believe that we've made huge strides in making interactions with computers far easier. Given the changes that I've seen in the past few decades, I trust that we will continue with even better ways to interact with computers.

So as my son develops his skills with handheld computers and perhaps even laptop and desktop computers, I can only imagine how my children's children will be interacting with their computers. I'm looking forward to what the next generation "Kid Test" will look like.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 March 2010.
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