At the most basic level, people have physiological needs for food, water, shelter, and so on. Then “higher-level” needs come into play including those for safety, socializing, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization.
The second order need for safety incorporates the human desire for feeling a certain degree of control over one’s life and that there is, from the macro perspective, elements of predictability, order, and consistency in the world.
Those of us who believe in G-d generally attribute “real” control over our lives and world events to being in the hands of our creator and sustainer. Nevertheless, we see ourselves having an important role to play in doing our part—it is here that we strive for control over our lives in choosing a path and working hard at it. A lack of any semblance of control over our lives makes us feel like sheer puppets without the ability to affect things positively or negatively. We are lost in inaction and frustration that whatever we do is for naught. So the feeling of being able to influence or impact the course of our lives is critical for us as human beings to feel productive and a meaningful part of the universe that we live in.
How does this impact technology?
Mike Elgan has an interesting article in Computerworld, 2 January 2009, called “Why Products Fail,” in which he postulates that technology “makers don’t understand what users want most: control.”
Of course, technical performance is always important, but users also have a fundamental need to feel in control of the technology they are using. The technology is a tool for humans and should be an extension of our capabilities, rather than something like in the movie Terminator that runs rogue and out of the control of the human beings who made them.
When do users feel that the technology is out of their control?
Well aside from getting the blue screen of death, when they are left waiting for the computer to do something (especially the case when they don’t know how long it will be) and when the user interface is complicated, not intuitive, and they cannot find or easily understand how to do what they want to do.
Elgan says that there are a number of elements that need to be built into technology to help user feel in control.
Consistetency—“predictability…users know what will happen when they do something…it’s a feeling of mastery of control.”
Usability—“give the user control, let them make their own mistakes, then undo the damage if they mess something up” as opposed to the “Microsoft route—burying and hiding controls and features, which protects newbies from their own mistakes, but frustrates the hell out of experienced users.”
Simplicity—“insist on top-to-bottom, inside-and-outside simplicity,” rather than “the company that hides features, buries controls, and groups features into categories to create the appearance of few options, with actually reducing options.”
Performance/Stability—“everyone hates slows PCs. It’s not the waiting. It’s the fact that the PC has wrenched control from the user during the time that the hourglass is displayed.”
Elgan goes on to say that vendors’ product tests “tend to focus on enabling user to ‘accomplish goals…but how the user feels during the process is more important than anything else.”
As a huge proponent of user-centricity, I agree that people have an inherent need to feel they are in some sort of control in their lives, with the technology they use, and over the direction that things are going in (i.e. enterprise architecture).
However, I would disagree that how the user feels is more important than how well we accomplish goals; mission needs and the ability of the user to execute on these must come first and foremost!
In performing our mission, users must be able to do their jobs, using technology, effectively and efficiently. So really, it’s a balance between meeting mission requirements and considering how users feel in the process.
Technology is amazing. It helps us do things better, faster, and cheaper that we could ever do by ourselves. But we must never forget that technology is an extension of ourselves and as such must always be under our control and direction in the service of a larger goal.