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Usability in Civic Life: Government & Industry Day

Remarks by Gary R. Bachula at the Government/Industry Executive Breakfast


Remarks by Gary R. Bachula
Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology
Before the Usability Professionals' Association
Government/Industry Executive Breakfast
Washington, D.C.
June 23, 1998

It is a pleasure for me to be here this morning to talk about information technology products, and an area of their quality that has received too little attention -consumer friendliness and usability.

First, let me give credit where credit is due. If it weren't for information technology products, we would not be witnessing what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has described to the Congress as a "technological transformation of the economy."

That transformation has produced an extraordinary period of economic growth, the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, and the lowest inflation in 32 years. We've created 15 million new jobs in just the last 5 years, the majority of them paying above average wages. Some have even suggested that the United States is on the threshold of what economists call a "long wave"- decades of unbroken growth and prosperity.

These are the dividends generating by our investments in technology. Leading economists identify technical progress as the single most important factor in sustained economic growth, accounting for as much as one half of U.S. economic growth in the past 50 years.

And, perhaps no enabling technology is having a greater stimulative effect on our economy today than our expanding portfolio of information technologies. Investments in information technology now represent over 45 percent of all business equipment investment. For some industries - such as communications, insurance, and investment Brokerages - IT equipment constitutes over three-quarters of all equipment investment.

In 1994, three million people used the Internet. By the end of 1997, more than 100 million people were surfing the web, with another 100 million expected to log-on this year. Internet traffic has been doubling every 100 days, and new web pages are being added at the astonishing rate of 100,000 pages an hour.

IT is driving growth. Recently, Alan Greenspan pointed to the accelerating expansion of computer and telecommunications technologies as a force that should appreciably raise our standard of living in the 21st century.

Knowledge has become the most important commodity in the global economy; and the Internet is the trade route of the Information Age. The speed with which we create knowledge and our ability to put it to work for us will determine America's position in the global economy. And, advances in information technology are essential for our success.

And that's the rub. Despite the importance of information technology to our economy, we are underutilizing our digital power, leaving opportunities for growth, productivity and even higher living standards untapped. In my mind, we use our digital cannons like squirt guns because information technology is not user friendly. For example, as more and more features are added to computers, some have estimated that 80 percent of users don't use 80 percent of the features available to them. In a good example, Ricoh surveyed its fax customers and discovered that 95 percent of the respondents did not use three key features because of usability problems. What do you think it cost the company to develop and manufacture those features that hardly anybody uses?

Hundreds of millions of people are becoming dependent on complicated digital machines that are difficult to operate and prone to trouble--and, get this, they're easier to use then ever before.

Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but -

A car is complex thing - mechanical, digital - but you don't have to learn much about it to go for a spin. You don't have to read a manual longer than the New Testament. You locate a few buttons, set the radio, D's for drive, P's for park, turn the key and go. Manufacturers have made the technical complexity of the car invisible to the consumer.

But some folks just don't get it. Bill Gates once compared computers and autos: If automotive technology had kept pace with computer technology over the past few decades, he said, you would now be driving a V-32 instead of a V-6 engine, and it would have a top speed of 10,000 miles per hour. Your economy car would weigh about 30 pounds and get a thousand miles to a gallon of gas, with no effect on the environment. In either case, the sticker price on the new car would be less than $500. Well, true enough.

But there's another point of view. Would you really want your car to crash twice a day? Occasionally, executing a maneuver would cause your car to stop and fail to restart, and you'd have to reinstall the engine. The air bag system would say "Are your sure?" before going off. If you were involved in a crash, you wouldn't have a clue about what happened. Sometimes you'd get in the car to go to the grocery store and the car would drive you to your in-laws instead. And, of course, getting your car on the road and keeping it there would cost as much as four times the price you paid for the car itself.

Let's review some of the driving instructions for today's computers:

Windows 98 asks users to press "start" to stop.

And what are all those arrows and Xs, and blocks supposed to mean?
On the Apple Powerbook, the "on" switch doesn't say "on," it just has a little arrow pointing left. I hope the fire control systems on our jet fighters don't have a little arrow pointing left, but rather say something like "push here to blow-up the other guy."

On Windows NT, you press control, alt, and delete to start using the system. With Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS, you pressed the same three keys to reboot.

People are still scanning their keyboards looking for the "any" key.
And, at least when your new car breaks down, you've got a warranty. But, if your software has a bug in it, you pay to get it fixed.

Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT - at M-I-T - says he still kneels and cries when some computer situations arise. So he calls up his top people in the lab, and they end up on the floor, kneeling and crying. Those nonsensical error messages give new meaning to the phrase "read-em and weep."

But who wouldn't prefer little pictures to those error messages--like the nice lady who worked for nearly three years on a book manuscript, overtaxed the memory on her computer and, without warning, a little sad-faced Macintosh came on the screen and the computer ground to a halt. She had no backup.

Let me say this to the IT industry - people, we are not designing computer systems for the X-Files' Lone Gunmen. 90 million adult Americans have limited information and quantitative skills. We're designing computers for people who get nervous when confronted with "insert tab A into slot B." We're designing information technology for people who shutter at the thought of Christmas Eve toy assembly.

Take a hint from "Tales from the Technical Support Center," horror stories about the technically-challenged:

People who can't turn on the computer because they're using the mouse as a foot pedal.

A caller who complained that her mouse was hard to control with the dust cover on it--actually the plastic bag the mouse was packaged in. Another user complained that the mouse didn't work when she held it up to the screen and clicked the buttons.

The story of the user who thought the load drawer for the CD-ROM drive was a cup holder.

How about 40 minutes of trouble shooting to help someone use a computer to fax a document, only to find out that the user was holding a piece of paper up in front of the monitor screen and hitting the send key.

Then there's the user who couldn't get computing--after buying a monitor, keyboard, printer, modem, scanner, speakers, CD-ROM drive - everything but the computer itself.

Or the user having a problem with a LaserWriter. The printer cable was in the communications port, instead of the printer port. When told to remove the cable from the phone port, and place it in the printer port, well, the telephone just went dead; the user had unplugged the telephone instead.

And what about our poor business and government users?

The IRS has spent billions of dollars on computer systems that one top official says "do not work in the real world." IRS customer representatives have to use up to nine different computer terminals connected to a myriad of databases.

A large bank had five different systems that needed to be accessed to do a transaction. When you needed to transfer money from one account to another, bank employees had to actually print it out on paper and take it to another office and key it in to another system.

The State of California put $99 million into its system for tracing down people who don't make child support payments. The hard-to-understand software had more than 350 screens.

The real estate industry here in Washington has a new $18.5 million state-of- the-art computerized multiple listing system. One of the system's features lets agents place a dot on a map to show home buyers the location of properties. An agent complains that, no matter how carefully he places the dot, it often moves across the street. The system is so unreliable, agents have been encouraged to call and confirm the computer's information.

People don't want to compute. They want to write reports, find information, create art, prepare budgets, manage their schedules, and send messages to one another. And I think herein lies part of the problem. Very successful parts of the IT industry operate on a tech-push model.

Just who is designing computers and software for you and me?

Let's face it. The stars of personal computing - our Edisons of the Information Age - are young wizards, working in an environment that is little different than the college campuses they came from. They work in isolation from the customer, or too often assume that their customers are exactly like themselves. These cyberstars are brilliant; their eccentricities are gladly catered to; one company put a hot programmer on the night shift to accommodate his desire to program in the nude.

Under the gun of product life cycles measured in months, critical IT products and productivity tools are being developed by bright and dedicated people who work for days without sleep, pumped up on Jolt Cola and Tanzanian Peaberry from Starbucks. But these experts presume that their customers have a higher level of technical competence than they really do. And they are rewarded for their "gee whiz" bells and whistles, not for consumer friendliness. And we just pretty much accept whatever innovations they churn out. It's called tech push.

Computers used to be run by the experts. PC's changed all that. But the new technology has gone beyond the technical competence of typical users. It makes all of us who don't "get it" feel like idiots, and we run out and get a book called Windows for Dummies, or get the twelve year-old computer hack that lives next door to give us a hand. We can do better. This culture of innovation needs to take a page from the quality movement, and focus on the customer.

What does the customer want?

We want usability - systems that are easy to learn and remember, that enhance our productivity, systems that are error resistant, and friendly.
We want interoperability - we want our system to be able to interact with another system and exchange data with predictable results.
We want scalability - information technology is changing so fast, we want our capabilities to evolve with the changes, without the need to replace our systems with each new development.
And, we want reliability - we want to count on our systems to perform as expected.
By now, it should come as no surprise that I am behind you and your agenda. The IT industry and IT professionals must do more to incorporate user feedback into product development, and to pay much greater attention to how users interact with IT products. I commend UPA for its critical work and encourage you to reach out even further.

We at the Commerce Department, particularly through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are making some contribution. Yesterday, NIST held its 3rd Annual Usability Engineering in Government Systems Symposium. This was geared toward government personnel and government contractors, aimed at helping them learn to incorporate usability engineering techniques into the government system design and development process. We co-sponsored this event with UPA.

Recognizing the importance of apply usability engineering techniques to the World Wide Web, NIST has a project called WebMetrics. We are doing research and developing tools for web usability. The WebMetrics Tool Suite contains rapid, remote, and automated tools to help produce usable web sites.

NIST is also investigating methods for making children's measurements for product design available as 3D displays over the Internet. Having such anthropometric data available and shareable on the Web for product design improves safety and usability.

Other projects in NIST's Information Technology Laboratory have involved testing and measurement to support information retrieval, speech recognition, and image and OCR recognition. These tools all make information easier to access.

But, government cannot lead the effort to make IT work better for people, and for organizations. The private sector must step up to the plate. Listen to the customer. Know the business of the customers you are serving and meet their needs. Focus on improvement and innovation. Much depends on the industry's success as the Information Age matures, and we all become more reliant on technology.

The customer has placed their trust in you - the IT industry. Millions of users keep personal financial data and other critical information on their home computer. Hospitals trust that their systems will work and not put patients in jeopardy. Businesses depend on computer systems that store a vast array of information and enable the transactions required to do business. Our governments count on their systems to meet their critical missions. And our men and women in uniform rely on computer-supported systems to defend this nation.

There is much at stake here, and enhancing IT usability would let us all sleep a little more soundly at night. Thanks.

For further information, please contact Cheryl Mendonsa, Office of Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce (202/482-8321).

Biography of Gary R. Bachula

Gary Bachula is the Under Secretary for Technology (Acting) at the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration. Bachula oversees the work of the Office of Technology Policy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Technical Information Service.

The Office of the Under Secretary also provides advice and assistance to the Secretary of Commerce for the formulation of new policies and program initiatives for science and technology policy matters. In this capacity, the Technology Administration assists in the development and promotion of Federal technology policies to increase U.S. commercial and industrial innovation, productivity, and economic growth.

Bachula serves as the Department of Commerce representative to the Committee on Education and Training of the National Science and Technology Council.

With both a B.A. in economics and a law degree (J.D.) from Harvard, Bachula served as Chief of Staff to U.S. Rep. Bob Traxler of Michigan from 1974 to 1986, where he advised the Congressman on appropriations for NASA, EPA, the National Science Foundation, and other federal agencies.

From 1986 to 1990 he worked for Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard, serving as Chairman of the Governor's Cabinet Council. The focus of the Cabinet Council was to "reinvent" Michigan's job training and education programs.

Bachula also served as Vice President for Planning and Program Development for CIESIN, the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network. CIESIN is a federally funded project to integrate and extend the value of current and future U.S. environmental data collection efforts (satellite and on the ground) to a broad array of applied users.

Bachula, a native of Saginaw, Michigan and a 1964 graduate of Saginaw High School, was named Saginaw High's Distinguished Alumnus in 1990. He served at the Pentagon in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war.


 

 

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