Model the Future
The “Vision” metaphor is a popular one. It’s also usually the first step – so let’s start here.
In late 1981 leading market research firm Booz-Allen Hamilton decided to test the waters for the likelihood of consumer acceptance of interactive electronic services . But who knew what that meant?
As the graphics-and-gui-guy for our small team (“UX” was not a thing yet), my challenge was to provide an interactive structure and visual face for the Home Information Systems Study prototype.
This was a ‘rubber bands and chewing gum” exercise. Our working model of a home information system was cobbled together from available off-the-shelf technology, circa 1981 (It was funky, but it worked):
- Apple // computer (before the Mac, CPM operating system)
- Texas Instruments graphics card (allowed some graphic sophistication)
- IBM/MCA videodisc player (one of the first, allowed video integration)
- A touch-sensitive screen interface (don’t remember the brand)
The team was small – about 4-5 people, as I remember – the Usual Suspects: business/project manager, programmer, tech implementation, and UX/UI.
Challenge #1 : Implementing the tech platform itself
… was a significant part of the job. There was no infrastructure among the moving parts – or even within a given area, like graphics or navigation.
- There was no HTML or CSS or any other available standard “presentation” language for our homebrew system.
Part of my challenge, as the designated UI Guy, was to design the working tools for creating graphical screens.
For example: The graphics card itself could handle characters-on-a-set-grid (the grid itself was about 20×32 characters, each character was 8×8 pixels, with a palette of 8 pre-set colors). I laboriously created an all-caps alphabet for text typing, as well as a set of “image element characters” (simplistic blocks and angles) which could be combined to construct the chunky shapes on the screen.
Yes, it was a clumsy vision of the future. Yet it actually worked.
Challenge #2: Modeling the Vision
… was the really fun part. We created naive-but-functional models of the likely consumer services. The design magic was in presenting the customer’s view. After all, this was the “home information systems” study. We were explicitly and consciously representing the consumer perspective
Our target audience (sadly, I was not able to observe the testing) were Joe & Jane Sixpack , as they experienced a science-fiction-y view of their Twenty-First Century future … a la 1981.
Anticipating the coming electronic interactive revolution , we modeled a full range of integrated consumer services. I designed representative pages for:
- Investment Portfolio Management
- Travel Reservations
- Home Finances
- Home Energy & Security
- News Retrieval
We had a fairly credible list of likely consumer-oriented usages. Now our challenge was to …
Make it believable
… and natural. This vision was alien to most people. Most of us assumed that you had to be a white-labcoat-technician to use a computer. Unless you were a kid or a nerd hobbyist – and then you were only playing videogames in your home.
It had to be accessible. Clearly, we were limited by our ability to deliver graphical snazziness in the interface. The videodisc allowed us to present some nice realistic product images for the Shopping section, but otherwise the environment was visually (* ahem *) “limited”.
The “usability” was fairly limited (simple navigation & status buttons), but the magic was in the “utility” .
In true Prototype Style , we modeled mini-scenarios that demonstrated usage : In what I would call an animated slideshow format, you could click-thru a choreographed task workflow.
For example: Go to see what’s in your Mailbox. Here’s what you have. Drill down to view it. Now you can act on it, instantly.
We were able to emulate dynamically integrated services .
For example: A consumer purchase in the “Shopping” section would be reflected by an account debit in the “Banking” section – and was also reflected in your “Home Finances”.
The Elegance of the Vision was in its Usefulness
The Value of a Prototype
No need to beat that argument to death here. Much of it is self-evident: Articulation, Affirmation, Advocacy. It provides that initial traction to action . And it expresses the beautifully positive and naive assumptions of the unknown: Inspiration, Imagination, Insight
But there was also the opportunity for some learning.
Analysis: What’s Missing?
Our challenges in implementing the prototype identified critical systemic weaknesses. As noted above (in “Challenge #1 : Implementing the tech platform itself”), there was no presentational or application infrastructure to our proposed system . At least not yet.
There were no commonly-shared standards.
This was why the first foray into global interactive online (approximately 1980-1990), commonly known as Videotex , was an expensive failure.
A concept born in the 70’s, Videotex assumed “big iron” mainframe servers, dumb user terminals, and services that were dominated by huge corporate conglomerates. Deregulation, unanticipated technology leaps (like PC’s) and a failure of service providers to play together gracefully all undermined the original centralized business model.
Most of the stakeholders in the arena assumed that “common standards would happen.” It’s a seductive concept … because it makes so much sense.
However: Even though the vision of Videotex assumed an infrastructure of graceful, helpful seamlessness – the reality of the environment was an international hodgepodge of well-funded bickering competitors.
Ultimately, “the Miracle of the Web” happened because a clever scientist (not a business genius) put together an accessible set of navigation and display tools (URL’s & HTML) on network infrastructure that had been developed by a government agency, primarily for security, research and academic collaboration. It was non-propietary, free and often “open source”. Thank you, (* ahem *) Big Business.
Here’s a thought:
Innovation depends on infrastructure
Infrastructure is defined by standards
Which implies a role for … governance , actually
Analysis: What’s More?
The implicit integration of our interactive online environment highlighted something else:
the Information Economy has a vested interest in personal data
Over the course of the Home Information Systems project I articulated the concept of “Info-Tote” – a mechanism whereby you – as an individual – could maintain your information about yourself and your activity. This was now possible … on your personal computer. Your information and data could (and should) be used by others – but didn’t it belong to you?
Large, centralized databases already existed, of course, and they were already the underlying operational assumption of the emerging online interactive systems. But their data was collected and maintained and ultimately owned by business entities. Value and profit were determined solely by that one-sided model. That approach is still with us.
Info-Tote assumed that an individual has an equity interest in their own data.
We all have an active stake in The Information Economy.
This remains an unaddressed challenge today.
the TakeAway … for me
Although the words ” user ” and ” experience ” might’ve appeared in close proximity to one another at the time, it wasn’t really a Thing just yet. Nonetheless, I realized that – whatever it was – It was what I wanted to do. This project was the first in which I was involved in holistic, user-centered design.
I came away from the engagement with an increased appreciation for “the architecture of meaningful information”, as well as “the dance of interaction”, as captured in the phrase …
Content Integration through Context Management
George Lilly was the guy who led our small team. He was at IBM both and after before Booz-Allen, and definitely knew his stuff.
I am forever grateful to him for bringing me on board in the first place, early in my career – and providing guidance and mentoring in the arena.