My phone contains apps for my bed, my oven, my vacuums, my heating and cooling systems, my Wi-Fi’s, my refrigerator, transit trains, flights, hotels, UBER, conventions, money, banking, email, calendar, music, statistical calculator, flashlight, credit cards, Starbucks, Walmart, eBay, weight loss, Target, Instacart, grocery stores, messenger services, games, social websites, Internet phone, Internet services, texting, cable, television channels, streaming services…and more. I grimace every time I hear that phrase, “you need you to download our app.”
I HATE it. Not only are most of these apps difficult to use, but they are also a constant reminder of my diminishing eyesight and fine motor skills.
I know, I sound like most Baby Boomers.
But first, let me give you some of my computer credentials. I went to college and graduate school during the early days of computers. I was a computer geek. The computers of the day were very primitive, especially the small ones, which were typically PDPs in the science world. Programming them required an almost intimate knowledge of how they worked. We used paper tape and programmed in hexadecimal, ASCII, assembly languages, and sometimes we even had to use binary. The larger mainframes allowed us to use higher order languages such as BASIC, SQL, and my favorite, FORTRAN. While working on several military contracts in graduate school, I had access to classified programming tools that were even more innovative. It was not unusual for me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning, debugging code.
At several points, I almost changed my major to computer science. But I saw the handwriting on the wall.
In the early years, we were allowed to write our code as our minds worked, making our code virtually impossible for someone else to debug. I knew that this was not sustainable and a concept such as structured programming (which requires programmers to follow rules and conventions) was on the horizon. I chafed at those restrictions to creativity.
But I found another area that I enjoyed almost as much as coding, understanding how humans worked with computers and designing programs to make it easier for them to use. This was called Human Factors and later Ergonomics. I loved it. Our role was to help computer programmers design an interface that was easy to use for novices, moderately skilled users, and expert users. We typically required that programmers provide 2-3 ways of doing the same task to accommodate each type of user. We focused on the needs of the aging population, the harried middle-aged user, and the impatient youth. We conducted usability studies to assess how each type of user could perform important tasks. Our measurements were the reduction of errors (especially catastrophic ones), ability to perform the task without manuals, minimizing frustration, and speed. We focused on human perceptual capabilities and limitations; designing the most important components to be placed where the eye typically goes. We looked into the issue of nystagmus (rapid eye movements required for vision), color deficiencies, motor skills, cultural differences, computer expertise, and age-related issues. We took everything that we knew about human perception and designed programs to take advantage of our capabilities and overcome our disabilities.
While working on my dissertation, I inadvertently created an early videogame. Psychology 101 students are required to sign up for several experimental credits (which gives graduate students and professors access to “human guinea pigs”). I was testing the concept of a parallel processing ability. All of the mathematical models at the time showed that humans processed serially, namely they could not do two tasks simultaneously, but instead they did each task very quickly. But after observing mothers, I became convinced that there had to be some type of parallel processing ability. To test this, I designed and programmed a computer “game,” where subjects had to do two tasks at once. One was a monitoring task (making sure a cursor stayed in a box); the other was a recall task (remembering, numbers, letters, and crudely drawn figures). Every time I put up signup sheets, they were filled with “volunteers” within in an hour. Some students would cross someone’s name out so that they could fill in the slot. While other grad students begged for human subjects, I had to turn mine away. Never got it. Never understood what I had.
At Bell Laboratories, and later as a consultant, I was able to work on cutting edge technologies and even designed a financial website that is widely used today. I helped design a lot of “back end” systems (those systems that control electronic and optical transmission, Bluetooth, and early shopping sites), decades before they came into popular use.
But, while I was working, technology development was going through a sea change. Developers left the East Coast labs and Universities and moved to Silicon Valley. And when technology moved to Silicon Valley, our time consuming usability designs became too unattractive and too slow. The new programmers were young and with Apple leading the way, more focused on style and “coolness.” To accommodate venture capitalists, technology needed to come to the market quickly. To do that, there could be no accommodations for different types of users. So, UI designers and programmers wrote code for people like themselves.
Their designs are much more aesthetically pleasing than mine were. Their “look and feel” is sophisticated and artistic. Even with the help of a graphic designer, my designs were functional, and therefore, obsolete.
Which brings us to where we are now. Apps are designed by and for Gen X and younger, leaving us Baby Boomers in the dust.
Despite my computer knowledge, I have difficulty with many apps. My eyes struggle to read the small print and when I change the phone settings to larger type, most screens become incomprehensible (my Google password screen is a jumble of words). My QWERTY trained fingers are not dexterous enough to enter the information on the tiny phone key display quickly or accurately. The microphone doesn’t appear to understand my accent (or mumbling, perhaps). And it takes a long time to enter and find information in an app.
When confronted with the need for an app, I beg the rep to give me a way to do it on the computer, instead. On a computer, my error rate is much lower, and my throughput is much faster. But more and more companies/programs, especially the smaller ones, only offer apps.
Which brings me to my current problem. My pool pump in Florida failed, so my pool service installer replaced my pump. Unbeknownst to me, he replaced it with a pump that requires an app. No more manual switches for me. Except the “geniuses” that thought it was a good idea to put pool pump controls on an app, neglected to realize that most of us do not have and do not want to have our Wi-Fi service available outside of our homes. And pool pumps are always outside and, due to their noise, as far from the house as possible. My new pump has no other means to control it other than an app and since my Wi-Fi signal is not sufficiently strong outside, I cannot turn my pump on or off, manage the flow rate, or set a time schedule. I am reduced to using my circuit breaker to turn my pump on and off, and I am unable to access the other features. Furthermore, I didn’t learn that this pump required an app until a week after its installation when I was unable to turn it off after it began malfunctioning.
I did not handle this well.
Apparently, my pool installer’s supplier no longer offers a pool pump with manual or even electronic controls. I demanded some type of control over the pump, besides the circuit breaker. The installer suggested that I pay to upgrade my Wi-Fi capabilities to extend their range. I did not agree with that solution, as one can hack even a “secure” Wi-Fi system. Fortunately, it appears that the pump manufacturer recognizes they made a mistake and are developing a new pump (more expensive, of course) that does not require an app and has the controls on the pump on an electronic pad.
Since I am returning to Maryland before that new pump can be installed and my Wi-Fi is not strong enough for my current pump, I am very frustrated, even angry, at the possibility of the damage that could happen in my absence. Obviously, I need to calm down and patiently wait for a new, controllable pump. I need to accept our new reality.
Fortunately, there is an app for that.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.