Looking Forward To The Past : The Longing For And Inevitable Return Of The Analog Experience

After World War II, the U.S. experienced a period of peace and prosperity. Well, the "peace" part is arguable. While we built our homes and highways and focused on the nuclear family, the nuclear arms race quietly chugged along all the while. As for the "prosperity" part, few would argue that they were, at least on the surface, good days for America.

We’d just beaten down the evil Axis and it was time to bring our boys home to prosperity. The G.I. Bill guaranteed homes for every American soldier. Mom was coming out of the factory and headed to the kitchen. Dad was putting in his day at the office and looking forward to a nice home cooked meal. Junior was focused on his first car and his first kiss.

Technologically, the "automation" of the home elevated to the Nth degree. Vehicles, appliances and other gadgets seemed to take away a lot of the labor associated with doing just about anything. Here’s an ad for the "Speedster":

push_button_kitchen_1950_small-1 

I’m not entirely sure what this thing does. It might just be an oven, but this highlighted a pervasive sentiment back then: convenience was paramount. Anything that could be automated or made easier was inherently good.

Looking beyond gadgets and appliances in the home, the years following WWII saw a boom in distribution infrastructures. The interstate highways built with government subsidies made it far easier to establish a successful "business template" and replicate it all over the country. Businesses like General Electric and McDonalds thrived on their ability to deliver convenience in a predictable and uniform manner. From their perspective, it made great sense. If you’ve sorted out something that works, replicate it.

As the years went by, things didn’t exactly go as planned. The utopian proved to be flawed. The sentiments in the 60’s were in many ways a reaction to what turned out to be some false assumptions of what makes people happy. While we look back on the artifacts of that era and can’t help but be charmed by the retro-slightly-off-futuristic aspects of it all, we can’t help but react to it with a bit of a snicker or the occasional "that’s just ridiculous."

Today, we’re shunning convenience and automation. We want experiences around the things we do. We don’t want to press a button and get pancakes and eggs. We’re willing to drive to that charming diner that’s been around for a hundred years and enjoy farm fresh eggs and organic pancakes. It turns out that all that shortcutting deprives us of something.

In all this, I think there are some important lessons to be learned as we design the tools, applications and gadgets of the future that are supposed to provide us with convenience but in fact turn us off in many ways.

User Machine Interaction

In thinking about interaction design, we rightly focus on the user. We call them "user interfaces" and "user interactions." But the interaction isn’t one way. It’s a dialogue and the machine has plenty to say. Think about the experience around the convenience you’re delivering. A lot of the joy that people experience with machines isn’t purely out of the proverbial output, but how that machine interacts. What does your machine do when something goes wrong? Is it patient? Is it forgiving? Is it helpful? Does it anticipate and accommodate what the user is going to do next?

Respect The Analog

People love experiences that reinforce what we understand about the physical world. Innately understood phenomena like gravity and inertia help us understand what’s going and actually add a bit of joy to a user’s experience. Check out this Flash physics demo. It’s a lot of fun…and it’s not even a game! Anyone that’s flicked the album list on an iPhone can quickly see the value of adding that analog-like experience. It requires more work that can appear superfluous from an engineering perspective, but its very much worthwhile.

Convenience Is Good…But Not Free

More broadly speaking, we should be wary of what we assume to be conveniences that people want and at the costs of providing them. It turns out that making the cake from scratch is way more fun than tearing open a plastic wrapper because there are good things to take away from that experience. As we define our value and design around it, we should be as sensitive to what people don’t want as to what we’re certain they do want. It serves us well to respect that delicate balance.

[Disclaimer : This blog post was written on a Steampunk Keyboard Mod. Aww…yeh!]

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