The Internet: User Interfaces

The young to 40-somethings seem to find the smartphone and the Internet easy and convenient to use. But for the old, infirm and inept, web-based user interfaces are exceedingly difficult to use. This needs to change. All must be included: not just the mainstream majority. [Português]

The modern large Internet-based business seems only to cater for what it perceives as its own abstract generic customer, who has the profile of a young to 40s middle to higher educated reasonably salaried person. That's its mainstream fast-moving market that sits nicely in the middle of its market's standard distribution bell curve. This is capitalism, which is fine for non-vital products or services in a market with a large number of truly independent competing suppliers.

However, to provide a service like the Internet, which, as explicitly declared within the Internet Bill of Rights is essential to the practice of citizenship, this is definitely not the way to do it. The provider must not tune his market to include only the most profitable segment, while side-lining those who are not worth serving. He must in­clude everybody equally. That includes the old, infirm and inept. All must be equally facilitated to participate, without selective prejudice.

This requirement is wholly incompatible with the capitalist tenet to maximise profit by maximising revenue and minimising cost. They just don't mix. For this reason, the provision of a service to the public, which is legally defined as essential to the practice of citizenship, can never be entrusted to private hands; as is well evinced by my own experience of internet service provision in Brazil, it simply doesn't work.

The Private Provider

The generic customer of the private provider has good vision. He can read the tiny print on a tiny smartphone's screen without difficulty. He is dexterous. He can enter data precisely and accurately on a tiny touch keyboard whose keys are less than a quarter the size of a human finger-tip. How often have I seen young women typing away rapidly on their smartphones using only the edges of their thumb nails. Al­though I would wager that their typing speed in this situation is nowhere near my rate on my computer keyboard with its standard 19 by 19 mm keys.

This young generic customer also has well imprinted in his mind the perceptibility to instantly dismiss interloping jazzy adverts in order to concentrate on navigating the labyrinth of menus needed to arrive at his desired objective. He has grown up with the scene and knows the corporate psych of the user interface. He has dev­eloped an imperviousness to the commercial interface designer's self-indulgent high-tech graphical wank, which even exacerbates the customer's tribulation when reporting a fault by exploiting it as what he thinks is an advertising opportunity.

The Problem With The Old

Notwithstanding the glossy propaganda about how the old are taking well to mod­ern technology, it is irrefutable that the old have enormous difficulty with the user interfaces of both government and commercial websites. They say this is because the old haven't grown up with information technology the way the young have.

I am 80 years old. I have been programming computers for 60 years. I have recent­ly written a 7000 line C-program for a communications command and control appli­c­a­tion, with its own graphics user interface. All straight out of my head. It includes a function for tracking the moon to within one minute of arc, with reference only to universal standard time. Lack of computer knowledge is not the problem.

Yet I am almost always totally banjaxed by the user interfaces of most modern web sites and 'apps'. I find them irritating, frustrating and exceedingly difficult to use. Strange? No. We're considering here two entirely different and separate things:

  1. The logic and structure of a computer program and of the language in which it is written;

  2. The mathematical, physical, engineering or administrative system it is used to construct and bring to life.

I would describe my communications command and control program mentioned above as being of the mathematical, physical and engineering kind — perhaps with some aspects of administration.

On the other hand, I see the majority of web-based and 'app' user interfaces as be­ing essentially badly designed administrative systems. I don't think that the bad design is mainly due to any ineptness or incompetence on the part of the designers. I think it is because the system designers are pressured by those employing them to follow a selfish motive that does not champion the best interests of the cust­omer, but rather, exclusively, those of the corporate provider.

An example of this, which I again mentioned above, is the use of a fault reporting procedure as an advertising opportunity.

When his Internet connection is down, the user wants to concentrate on resolving the problen so that he can get back on-line as soon as possible. There he is, with increasing exasperation and frustration, battling his way through the impervious hierarchy of menus, on somebody else's computer, trying to find an option that best coincides with his problem. Suddenly, he gets a full colour jazzy picture of a scantily clad girl pushed in his face with "500 MEGA" splayed across her bosom, offer­ing him a higher speed connection plan, when the one he has doesn't even work!

What do the corporate marketers expect his reaction to be? I can only speak for myself, but for me it has an entirely negative effect. When the service I have doesn't even work, why would anybody think I would be open to the idea that the solution would be a faster more expensive connection, which in all probability wouldn't work either! Design the user interface to serve the user as best as possible in the way the user is currently asking to be served.

Consequently, with or without computer savvy on the part of the user, the problem remains. The problem is not technical. The problem for the old, infirm or otherwise challenged is two-fold. It is both physical and cultural. The cultural aspect, however, is essentially linguistic.

The Physical Aspect

A smartphone is too small for me to read the screen or use the stupidly small touch keyboard. Consequently, to make a payment for instance, I have to try to obtain a payment slip with a bar code. This is usually sent by email or as a WhatsApp attach­ment. I do not have the sight or physical dexterity to use a smartphone 'app' to obtain a payment slip or make a payment.

If I am able to obtain the payment slip PDF file onto my computer, I can print it immediately. But if I am only able to receive it by smartphone, the process is much more complicated. First I need to figure out how to get my smartphone to allow me to transfer the PDF file from its WhatsApp folder to my computer. There seems to be no positive systematic procedure for doing this. It is just a hit and miss situation in which I hope the option to transfer a file by USB will appear in the list of possible operations this time when I swipe downwards from the top of the phone screen. Then I must plug my smartphone's USB cable into my computer and copy the file across to my computer. There I can print the payment slip.

Notwithstanding, it is rarely that the bank's ATM will be able to read the bar code on the printed page. Consequently I need to enter the long string of numbers manually. I cannot see the numbers properly as they are printed in a very long string on the printed sheet. I must therefore cut and paste them into a word processor page, magnify them to 20 point type, set them in manageable rows and print them on the back of my payment slip printout for reading at the bank's ATM in order to enter them. To exacerbate this already complicated situation, it is usually on the fourth or fifth dodgy ATM in the bank hall that I am finally able to make the payment!

Before this ridiculous information technology revolution, all I did was write a cheque and send it by post or give it to the required person. What unprecedented retro­gression from the point of view of users like me since those good old days.

The Linguistical Aspect

Why is it that the young to 40s age-group are tuned in to the way these user inter­faces are designed whereas the older generation are not? In large part, I think it started with the graphics user interface aspect of the Xerox PARC experiment. From what I can glean of this, it seems that they aimed for an icon-based [simple sym­bolic] form of imperative and expression rather than a language-based one. It was essentially built upon the mode of thought of a pre-reading age child rather than on that of a human adult.

I started at my first school when I was 5 years old. I remember that on my first day, all of us new starters were shown where to hang our coats. This was on a long row of pegs along the wall of the entrance corridor. Each coat hook had a little picture next to it. The picture next to my hook was of a door key. That made it easy for me, as a 5-year-old, to remember where to find my coat when it was time to go home. Clearly, a number or my name would not have worked because I was pre-reading age: I thought as a child.

This, apparently, was the basis for the icon-based graphics user interface. It was designed for children — and hence for people who thought as pre-reading age child­ren. The naïve motives for this were 1) simplicity [it was independent of social class and level of education] and 2) it lent itself to easy internationalisation [it was large­ly independent of language]. This system has now become ubiquitous to informa­tion technology throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the psychologists of the Xerox PARC experiment seem to have over­looked a blindingly obvious truth that has been known since antiquity. Even in the Bible, Saint Paul makes quite a forcible glancing reference to it:

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
— 1 Corinthians 13:11

Once a human being acquires language, he does not think any more the way a child thinks. His mode of thought is quite different. Language provides a vastly more powerful and broader mechanism for thought than do the limited mental resources available to the pre-reading age child. It also functions in an entirely different way.

Thus the reason that the young to 40s are adept with modern website and applica­tion program user interfaces is that they have been inductively re-taught to think like pre-reading age children, whereas the older generation has not. Note the re­sulting endemic short attention-span of the modern young to 40s for reading. Most do not have the capacity to concentrate long enough to read a 3,000 word article. The most they can manage is the little bites provided by a magazine box-ad or TV commercial.

The prime example, in information technology, of this linguistic difference is that between the power and expressibility of a Unix line command and wading endlessly through the hierarchy of frumpy menus in a GUI-based application program to try to get it to do what you want. Of course, the former requires you to learn the comm­and language. However, this is far easier than spending a lifetime battling with im­pervious menus. But it does require the discipline to learn the language initially.

The Xerox PARC type icon/menu based user interface is ideal for very simple tasks. So let's use them for such. However, as the size of a task increases, the necessary complexity of an icon-vocabulary and menu hierarchy takes off exponentially and hence becomes an absolute pain to use. On the other hand, a grammar-based lang­uage continues to handle the enormous complexity of large tasks precisely, con­cisely, accurately and simply. So I'm not advocating that the command line should be the only or even the usual way of using a program. But there should be a com­promise that treats users as adults.

Conflicting Systemic Views

The crux of the problem, however, is that there are two conflicting systemic views to the provision of internet services: namely, a commercial one and a social one.

The commercial view is of a system, which is the Internet itself: an network comp­rising routers and links, which terminates in leaves [the end-users]. The end-user is perceived simply as a processor of logical [ostensibly commercial] transactions. In this view, the end-user exists simply to be ruthlessly gaslighted into believing and doing what large political and commercial hierarchies wish him to believe and do. The commercial view is essentially democratic. It is thus exclusivist, being inter­ested only in providing service to the influential and profitable mainstream major­ity, marginalising and blanking all less profitable minorities, however large or small, similar or differ­ent. It is a mechanistic view. It sees its jurisdiction as machine-like.

The social [or societal] view, on the other hand, is anything but machine-like. It is a system not comprising routers, links and leaves. Rather, it is a fluid [or complex-dynamical] system comprising human individuals, interacting according to universal interpersonal protocols. This gives society more the form and nature of a swirling flock of starlings, a weaving shoal of fish or a gyrating hurricane. It is a fluid net­work. It is the nemesis of hierarchy. Consequently, a universal system of commun­ication for society must follow the fluid model of society itself. Its focal objective must therefore be to provide optimal and seamless access for each and every indiv­idual human component of society. It must facilitate the needs of every citizen.

The Present Mess

I know an 82 year old lady lives alone. She is well educated. She can read and write, including writing cheques and posting letters. She suffers from episodes of mental illness. But she has no computer or Internet connection, which she would not know how to use anyway. But the local authority now only communicates and issues rates demands on-line. She never sees them. So, infirm and relatively im­mobile as she is, she is hauled into court as an infractor of the law. Sorry, but this positively disgusts me and wells up within me a furious and justified disrespect for law and authority.

I know a 95 year old lady who has a telephone. However, in order to even become away when and what amount she must pay the phone company, she has to call a young friend to look on the phone company's website and write down on a piece of paper how much and how she must pay. Then she has to get somebody else to go to the post office, give the hand-written scrap of paper to the clerk and make the pay­ment. What unprecedented retrogression from the point of view of people like her since the good old days before the technology revolution.

Banks increasingly no longer send paper statements. You have to look on-line. And they're tending to push the use of smartphone apps, discouraging and marginal­is­ing the computer-based Internet banking option. I am forced, aided by my trusty magnifying glass, to squint at my tiny smartphone to check my current transaction trail and balance. I dare not enable payment by smartphone. I could never reliably and accurately enter monetary amounts or account numbers via the tiny keyboard. So many tails of people mistyping and jetting who knows how much of their money to some erroneous and unknown destination. Government and courts seem poised to follow suit. Thus are the old, infirm and otherwise challenged also poised to be­come unconditional and unintentional infractors of criminal and civil law.

I have an Internet connection. It is highly unreliable. Yet the only way I can receive my ISP bill is via email or through the ISPs smartphone 'app'. If a bill arrives during a downtime, I cannot see it so I cannot pay it. So I am fined and have interest added to my next bill. If the downtime persists, the ISP places my name and details on a publicly visible list of bad debtors, upon which event I become a financial persona non grata. Sorry, but this positively disgusts me and wells up within me a furious and justified disrespect for law and authority.

My Internet goes down. I need to report the fault. How do I go about doing this? A full laborious, exasperating example of this is reported here.

And so the unending list continues. What callous disrespect by authority and big commerce for a populous minority of people that clearly don't matter. And they ex­pect respect and even deference in return? They probably do.

Non-Inherent Complexity

A corollary, which may be readily drawn from experience of the linguistical aspect of the problem, is that the currently ubiquitous form of user interface embodies a logic that is vastly more complex than the logic that is necessarily inherent to the objective it is designed to achieve.

A prime example is that of making a phone call using a smartphone compared with making a phone call on an old-fashioned landline phone. To make a call on a land­line phone, I simply lift the handset from its hook, dial the number required and wait. Two logical operations. To terminate the call, I simply replace the handset on its hook. One logical operation. The procedure contains no more logical steps than are inherent to the task.

In making the same phone call using my security-protected smartphone, I counted a minimum of 9 separate logical operations. In some cases if I am not quick enough during the procedure, the phone's screen locks up and I must re-enter the unlocking code. Technical progress?

All this drastically diminishes the usability of a device or web interface by the old, infirm or inept. But these are all supposedly equal citizens, for whom a public com­munications facility, deemed essential to the practice of citizenship, must cater.

The Solution

The solution to this mess can only be to change the systemic view of Internet service provision from its current commercial machine-like architecture to a societal complex-dynamical architecture.

And this must be done in two stages:

  1. Develop a network technology that mirrors the complex-dynamical nature of human society and draw up a comprehensive plan for implementing it.

  2. Make the change from the present machine-like architecture to the new fluidic architecture, without interrupting, diminishing or otherwise impinging on the service received by the customer.

All this is simply the fulfilment of the social obligation to treat others as you would wish them to treat you — whoever they are. In other words: to love your neighbour as yourself.

© 12 January 2023 Robert John Morton | see poem