Art and Engineering: How to Build Better Devices

by Mark Bernstein

It is a truth nearly universally acknowledged that programmers and engineers cannot design good user interfaces. The lore of software management is filled with tricks and techniques for getting programmers to do what you want, not what they want, as if they were unruly children. We talk about the inmates running the asylum, and management becomes "adult supervision." On the Web, we see the same tension in the quest of User Experience experts to rein in The Creatives. Architecture arose from the desire to reconcile engineering with art; Information Architecture tries to keep the artists from getting out of hand.

Sullivan.jpgComputer science and software engineering started in the 1950s, a time when society was very angry at science. The scientists, after all, had just invented the atomic bomb, and that seemed likely to kill us all. It was a Sputnik moment. On the one hand, we gave young scientists scholarships and jobs; on the other, we started to call them names: nerd, geek, techie. And we started to believe that they weren't quite normal, that knowing calculus somehow unfits one's moral compass or that understanding recursion deprives one of the ability to make software that "real" people can use.

I think this is a mistake, and that relying too much on the intuitions of focus groups and investors and salespeople may lead toward stagnation. Casual users are inclined to be conservative. Ask them what they want, and you usually find that they want what they have -- just faster and cheaper and with extra magic. The consequence has been a decade of software that is too often dull and unadventurous. We would be better served by software with opinion and attitude, software that takes a stand. Frederick Brooks, Jr., wrote about "software with fan clubs" in The Design of Design; we don't know exactly why some programs are loved and some are merely useful, but the software people feel strongly about almost always starts out with one or two creators.

My own interest lies in making literary devices that are better than books -- both "printed" books that tell you what someone else thought and empty books that help you write stuff down and discover what you think. We need both and we need them urgently. Our legislators cannot understand the policies on which they must decide, and our voters cannot fathom the issues on which they vote. In place of judgment, we substitute the opinion of experts. Today, experts can be found to espouse any option you like. We no longer ask whether a politician is lying, but rather whether the politician knows what he says is untrue or is knowingly appealing to the base.

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We now know the future of serious reading and writing lies on the screen. But how should we build that future? The conservative answer has been to reproduce each aspect of the book on the screen, adding some incremental changes like color pictures or video illustration to compensate for the expense and inconvenience.  I think we can do more.

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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