Design for the Engelbart era

I’m typing this blog post on a laptop, using Windows and a mouse.  The WordPress screen in front of me is clearly designed for this sort of use – it’s optimised for a screen with a reasonable amount of space, and it’s got icons which make sense if you have a mouse to navigate and click.  Were I using an iPad or some other tablet, I’d have subtlely different requirements in how to navigate the screen and make selections, to make things easy when using a touch screen.  Were I using a smartphone with a small screen, I’d need to adapt, rather less subtlely, to a different set of requirements again.

Doug Engelbart is best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but it’s worth noting that this is just one manifestation of his whole philosophy around how humans could cope with complexity.  He made the hyperlink – the object or text which you click over to move from one place ot another – familiar.  His ideas inform the way that we navigate the web, and the way that we handle interlinked chunks of knowledge rather than linear screeds of information.  I like to refer to the computer systems which depend on mice, menus, graphics, and hyperlinks, as Engelbart era computers.

However I also note that some of the issues raised, particularly by students around usability of computer systems that they encounter in their studies, stem from the systems – our systems, in the sense of systems that universities provide – being optimised for Engelbart era environments, where in practice many of them consider their smartphones as being the primary way of accessing online resources.  This is no criticism of the developers of these systems: the lead time for introducing something like a virtual learning enviroment is significant, and a few years ago there few people would have foreseen the mouse becoming obsolete.  But it’s an issue which does affect perceptions of how easy universities’ computer systems are to use

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