Welcome!

Open Source Cloud Authors: Yeshim Deniz, Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Zakia Bouachraoui

Related Topics: Machine Learning , Java IoT, Industrial IoT, Mobile IoT, Microservices Expo, ColdFusion, IBM Cloud, PowerBuilder, Weblogic, Microsoft Cloud, Linux Containers, Adobe Flex, Symbian, Open Source Cloud, Containers Expo Blog, Eclipse, Cognitive Computing , Silverlight, PHP, Agile Computing, Video, Wearables, Release Management , Recurring Revenue, Artificial Intelligence, Log Management, Server Monitoring, @CloudExpo, CRM, Ruby-On-Rails, Apache, Perl, Python, CMS

Machine Learning : Article

Engelbart's Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use

Doug Engelbart developed a 5-finger keyboard with keys like a piano, used by one hand...but it was very difficult to learn

The mouse was the original idea of Doug Engelbart who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. It had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. The problem was, the five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn.

In his book, Designing Interactions, Bill Moggridge muses on the improbable invention of the computer mouse.

“Who would choose to point, steer, and draw with a blob of plastic as big and clumsy as a bar of soap? We spend all those years learning to write and draw with pencils, pens, and brushes.”

Who indeed? At the time the mouse was invented other devices such as the light pen, key pads, and joysticks and even the trackball existed or were being considered for pointing devices in computing. How did the mouse come to be the most common pointing device?

The mouse, that unlikely “blob of plastic” was the original idea of Doug Engelbart (pictured) who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. ARC also invented the first word processor, hypertext, and groupware – all of which were first demoed in 1968, 15 years before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa and 13 years before Xerox PARC introduced the Star, the ancestor of the modern personal computer.

The mouse became the pointing device of choice for ARC because it was proven, in user testing, to be the most efficient of all the devices tested.  There was nothing elegant or particularly attractive about Engelbart’s mouse – he adopted it because it required less user-effort and was more precise than anything else they tested.  Engelbart was not interested at all in ease-of-use; he was interested only in improving the efficiency with which humans interacted with computers.



The first mouse

Engelbart had ideas around human-computer interactions that he originally described in 1962 in his seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”  This paper is the foundation of Engelbart’s philosophy on human-computer interaction and it led to the invention of the mouse, hypertext, windows, and groupware.

According to Engelbart, in order to achieve the best human-computer symbiosis – an objective that is central to his Augmenting Intellect philosophy – users need to be trained to use the most efficient computer artifacts (e.g. pointing devices, keyboards, etc.).  Engelbart did not believe that computers should be easy for novices to use; he believed that people would require lengthy training in order to be truly effective. Specifically, he wanted computer interactions to be based on systems that, with considerable training, were the most efficient – not the easiest to use.

Engelbart 's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. The keyboard had keys like a piano and was used by one hand.  It was based on chords, sort of like a guitar, where pressing combinations of buttons output certain characters.



The NLS keyset

The five-finger keyboard was used in combination with a three-button mouse so that your left hand was always on the keyboard and your right hand was always on the mouse. The two devices complemented each other and allowed extremely fast data entry and computer interactions.  The problem was, Engelbart’s five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn. Bill Moggridge describes the use of these devices together in Designing Interactions, as follows:

“This is how the interactions were designed. On the mouse, one button was to click, another was called command accept, and the third was called command delete. If you wanted to delete a word, you hit the middle button on the keypad, which was the letter d. It was d because it is the fourth letter in the alphabet and this was a binary coding, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16.  If it was the letter f, it was the sixth letter so you’d hit the 2 and the 4 keys at the same time.“



First demo model of Engelbart’s five-finger keyboard and mouse combination

Using the five-finger keyboard and the mouse together a user had access to an enormous amount of functionality – far beyond what you can do with the full QWERTY keyboard, mouse, and GUI systems of today.  Sadly, however, the use of these devices in combination was simply too difficult.  This was a recurring theme in Engelbart’s work: in order to use his computer systems you had to master the input devices, which took a lot of training. This is Engelbart’s Dilemma. His systems were far more efficient and potentially more powerful human-computer interfaces, but they were extremely difficult for novice users.

Today, human-computer interaction is focused on ease-of-use and learnability. Ideally, people should be immediately effective with a computer the first time they use it. The emphasis is on usability – without the necessity of training. The exact opposite of Engelbart’s approach.

Engelbart’s dilemma is that his philosophy produced some of the best computer technologies of our age (e.g. mouse, windows, word processing, etc.), but the full realization of his vision is completely counter to way interaction designers think of computers systems today. In fact, Engelbart's belief in efficiency over ease-of-use places him in the fringe of computer interaction design today. That’s sad considering he’s done more for interaction design than any else I can think of.

Are Engelbart’s ideas about efficiency over ease-of-use completely crazy?  I don't think so – not entirely.  I once heard or read (I can’t remember which) that Engelbart compared his interaction system to that of the violin. In essence, he said that the violin is an awkward instrument for novices but that, with training, a good musician can create incredibly beautiful music. My son trained in the violin for a couple of years, and I can attest to the amount of practice it took to master even simple melodies, but I’ve also seen good students play music that moved me more than any other instrument I have ever heard. Perhaps, like the violin, people could reach a new level of synergy with computers if they followed Engelbart’s philosophy and focused on efficiency over ease-of-use. 

The truth is we may never know if Engelbart is right, because the computer is the province of the masses and not just expert users.  If we were designing a musical instrument today, our focus on ease-of-use and learning would probably lead us to the kazoo rather than the violin.

This column appears exclusively at SYS-CON.com. Copyright © 2008 Richard Monson-Haefel.
(This copyright notice supersedes the one auto-generated at the foot of this page.)

More Stories By Richard Monson-Haefel

Richard Monson-Haefel, an award-winning author and technical analyst, owns Richard Monson-Haefel Consulting. Formerly he was VP of Developer Relations at Curl Inc. and before that a Senior Analyst at The Burton Group. He was the lead architect of OpenEJB, an open source EJB container used in Apache Geronimo, a member of the JCP Executive Committee, member of JCP EJB expert groups, and an industry analyst for Burton Group researching enterprise computing, open source, and Rich Internet Application (RIA) development.

Comments (6) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Fibido 04/10/08 01:12:22 PM EDT

I use the the Bluetooth Frogpad to do much the same as his keyboard. It uses chords too. I had to work on it for about 7 weeks before I was typing 30wpm. Now after a year, I can switch hands (I have a left and right frogpad) and use the mouse at the same time typing about 45 wpm. For reference, I type about 60 wpm on a full keyboard. I see a huge difference in normal day to day tasks. If I could split the mouse and keyboard across separate apps it would only get better.

Eric Rickard 04/10/08 07:22:54 AM EDT

It's great to see Doug's back in the news. There are few computer pioneers who remain relevant beyond their natural career span. Thanks for the article. I know that it's been a frustration of love for Doug to see so many of his ideas reamin in the archives. I encourage all new computer scientists and engineers to review Doug's early papers. It's a gold mine of ideas!

Dorai Thodla 04/09/08 11:48:13 PM EDT

Doug once mentioned that he trained his daughters when they were young and it did not take them long to learn it.

I think the Accordion keyboard did not get enough exposure for us to test out the theory whether it is more difficult to learn. Valerie Landau did a study with her students in CSUMB with some interesting results and has built several prototypes since then.

Have you seen teenagers texting? They use one hand, and type faster than we can on a qwerty keyboard.

The opencourse.org has some material on some of the CSUMB studies.

Gardner Campbell 04/08/08 06:03:06 AM EDT

Engelbart believed everyone should be striving toward just the capability and collective intelligence he outlined in his “Augmenting Human Intellect,” and he also believed that if we didn’t, we were surely doomed as a civilization.

davidw 04/08/08 04:41:38 AM EDT

Engelbart was concerned with tools for group collaboration, process hierarchies, and multi-level nesting of organizational knowledge. Take a look a his “mother of all demos” demo, which is indeed truly amazing. Here's the link: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=mother+of+all+demos&search_type=

cgerrish 04/08/08 04:09:09 AM EDT

I like Doug Engelbart as much as the next guy, but you’d think we could move beyond 1968, the icon, the mouse and the window.

IoT & Smart Cities Stories
The best way to leverage your Cloud Expo presence as a sponsor and exhibitor is to plan your news announcements around our events. The press covering Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo will have access to these releases and will amplify your news announcements. More than two dozen Cloud companies either set deals at our shows or have announced their mergers and acquisitions at Cloud Expo. Product announcements during our show provide your company with the most reach through our targeted audiences.
CloudEXPO New York 2018, colocated with DXWorldEXPO New York 2018 will be held November 11-13, 2018, in New York City and will bring together Cloud Computing, FinTech and Blockchain, Digital Transformation, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, AI, Machine Learning and WebRTC to one location.
Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life settlement products to hedge funds and investment banks. After, he co-founded a revenue cycle management company where he learned about Bitcoin and eventually Ethereal. Andrew's role at ConsenSys Enterprise is a mul...
Disruption, Innovation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Leadership and Management hear these words all day every day... lofty goals but how do we make it real? Add to that, that simply put, people don't like change. But what if we could implement and utilize these enterprise tools in a fast and "Non-Disruptive" way, enabling us to glean insights about our business, identify and reduce exposure, risk and liability, and secure business continuity?
DXWorldEXPO | CloudEXPO are the world's most influential, independent events where Cloud Computing was coined and where technology buyers and vendors meet to experience and discuss the big picture of Digital Transformation and all of the strategies, tactics, and tools they need to realize their goals. Sponsors of DXWorldEXPO | CloudEXPO benefit from unmatched branding, profile building and lead generation opportunities.
DXWorldEXPO LLC announced today that Telecom Reseller has been named "Media Sponsor" of CloudEXPO | DXWorldEXPO 2018 New York, which will take place on November 11-13, 2018 in New York City, NY. Telecom Reseller reports on Unified Communications, UCaaS, BPaaS for enterprise and SMBs. They report extensively on both customer premises based solutions such as IP-PBX as well as cloud based and hosted platforms.
Digital Transformation: Preparing Cloud & IoT Security for the Age of Artificial Intelligence. As automation and artificial intelligence (AI) power solution development and delivery, many businesses need to build backend cloud capabilities. Well-poised organizations, marketing smart devices with AI and BlockChain capabilities prepare to refine compliance and regulatory capabilities in 2018. Volumes of health, financial, technical and privacy data, along with tightening compliance requirements by...
The deluge of IoT sensor data collected from connected devices and the powerful AI required to make that data actionable are giving rise to a hybrid ecosystem in which cloud, on-prem and edge processes become interweaved. Attendees will learn how emerging composable infrastructure solutions deliver the adaptive architecture needed to manage this new data reality. Machine learning algorithms can better anticipate data storms and automate resources to support surges, including fully scalable GPU-c...
To Really Work for Enterprises, MultiCloud Adoption Requires Far Better and Inclusive Cloud Monitoring and Cost Management … But How? Overwhelmingly, even as enterprises have adopted cloud computing and are expanding to multi-cloud computing, IT leaders remain concerned about how to monitor, manage and control costs across hybrid and multi-cloud deployments. It’s clear that traditional IT monitoring and management approaches, designed after all for on-premises data centers, are falling short in ...
DXWordEXPO New York 2018, colocated with CloudEXPO New York 2018 will be held November 11-13, 2018, in New York City and will bring together Cloud Computing, FinTech and Blockchain, Digital Transformation, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, AI, Machine Learning and WebRTC to one location.