Welcome!

Machine Learning Authors: Pat Romanski, William Schmarzo, Kevin Jackson, Jason Bloomberg, Chris Boorman

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.

@CloudExpo Stories
What sort of WebRTC based applications can we expect to see over the next year and beyond? One way to predict development trends is to see what sorts of applications startups are building. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Arin Sime, founder of WebRTC.ventures, discussed the current and likely future trends in WebRTC application development based on real requests for custom applications from real customers, as well as other public sources of information.
Your homes and cars can be automated and self-serviced. Why can't your storage? From simply asking questions to analyze and troubleshoot your infrastructure, to provisioning storage with snapshots, recovery and replication, your wildest sci-fi dream has come true. In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 20th Cloud Expo, Dan Florea, Director of Product Management at Tintri, provided a ChatOps demo where you can talk to your storage and manage it from anywhere, through Slack and similar services with...
The financial services market is one of the most data-driven industries in the world, yet it’s bogged down by legacy CPU technologies that simply can’t keep up with the task of querying and visualizing billions of records. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Karthik Lalithraj, a Principal Solutions Architect at Kinetica, discussed how the advent of advanced in-database analytics on the GPU makes it possible to run sophisticated data science workloads on the same database that is housing the rich...
DevOps at Cloud Expo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 21st Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to w...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Massive Networks will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Massive Networks mission is simple. To help your business operate seamlessly with fast, reliable, and secure internet and network solutions. Improve your customer's experience with outstanding connections to your cloud.
"We want to show that our solution is far less expensive with a much better total cost of ownership so we announced several key features. One is called geo-distributed erasure coding, another is support for KVM and we introduced a new capability called Multi-Part," explained Tim Desai, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Hitachi Data Systems, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 20th Cloud Expo, held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
FinTechs use the cloud to operate at the speed and scale of digital financial activity, but are often hindered by the complexity of managing security and compliance in the cloud. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Sesh Murthy, co-founder and CTO of Cloud Raxak, showed how proactive and automated cloud security enables FinTechs to leverage the cloud to achieve their business goals. Through business-driven cloud security, FinTechs can speed time-to-market, diminish risk and costs, maintain continu...
There is a huge demand for responsive, real-time mobile and web experiences, but current architectural patterns do not easily accommodate applications that respond to events in real time. Common solutions using message queues or HTTP long-polling quickly lead to resiliency, scalability and development velocity challenges. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Ryland Degnan, a Senior Software Engineer on the Netflix Edge Platform team, will discuss how by leveraging a reactive stream-based protocol,...
DX World EXPO, LLC., a Lighthouse Point, Florida-based startup trade show producer and the creator of "DXWorldEXPO® - Digital Transformation Conference & Expo" has announced its executive management team. The team is headed by Levent Selamoglu, who has been named CEO. "Now is the time for a truly global DX event, to bring together the leading minds from the technology world in a conversation about Digital Transformation," he said in making the announcement.
In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Mike Johnston, an infrastructure engineer at Supergiant.io, discussed how to use Kubernetes to set up a SaaS infrastructure for your business. Mike Johnston is an infrastructure engineer at Supergiant.io with over 12 years of experience designing, deploying, and maintaining server and workstation infrastructure at all scales. He has experience with brick and mortar data centers as well as cloud providers like Digital Ocean, Amazon Web Services, and Rackspace. H...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 21st Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devic...
"The Striim platform is a full end-to-end streaming integration and analytics platform that is middleware that covers a lot of different use cases," explained Steve Wilkes, Founder and CTO at Striim, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 20th Cloud Expo, held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
Everything run by electricity will eventually be connected to the Internet. Get ahead of the Internet of Things revolution and join Akvelon expert and IoT industry leader, Sergey Grebnov, in his session at @ThingsExpo, for an educational dive into the world of managing your home, workplace and all the devices they contain with the power of machine-based AI and intelligent Bot services for a completely streamlined experience.
With tough new regulations coming to Europe on data privacy in May 2018, Calligo will explain why in reality the effect is global and transforms how you consider critical data. EU GDPR fundamentally rewrites the rules for cloud, Big Data and IoT. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Adam Ryan, Vice President and General Manager EMEA at Calligo, will examine the regulations and provide insight on how it affects technology, challenges the established rules and will usher in new levels of diligence...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Calligo has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Calligo is an innovative cloud service provider offering mid-sized companies the highest levels of data privacy. Calligo offers unparalleled application performance guarantees, commercial flexibility and a personalized support service from its globally located cloud platfor...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Calligo, an innovative cloud service provider offering mid-sized companies the highest levels of data privacy and security, has been named "Bronze Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo ®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Calligo offers unparalleled application performance guarantees, commercial flexibility and a personalised support service from its globally located cloud plat...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SkyScale will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. SkyScale is a world-class provider of cloud-based, ultra-fast multi-GPU hardware platforms for lease to customers desiring the fastest performance available as a service anywhere in the world. SkyScale builds, configures, and manages dedicated systems strategically located in maximum-securit...
21st International Cloud Expo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy. Me...
SYS-CON Events announced today that DXWorldExpo has been named “Global Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Digital Transformation is the key issue driving the global enterprise IT business. Digital Transformation is most prominent among Global 2000 enterprises and government institutions.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Datera, that offers a radically new data management architecture, has been named "Exhibitor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo ®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Datera is transforming the traditional datacenter model through modern cloud simplicity. The technology industry is at another major inflection point. The rise of mobile, the Internet of Things, data storage and Big...