From my point of view, in a perfect world, we would all make a transition to a
different central criteria behind the notion of usablity in software. We would
focus on a single human faculty, as a meter or tool for judging usability.
For various reasons that will become apparent, it's a difficult faculty to isolate
these days, so the burden is on me to explain what I mean, and the means by which
people can isolate this faculty.
I will also argue that use of this faculty is not a completely new thing. It is simply
a more explicit, more complete, and more conscientious use of the faculty we already
make use of, to judge the usable, and other good qualities, in the the things we use
I'll focus on software here, although this faculty can be applied to all human activity,
and, to a too-small degree, already is.
When I mean software, I mean all Human Computer Interaction ... that of a 'programmer',
and that of a 'user'. I think that we've made a huge mistake, for decades, separating
our criteria and approaches to these two kinds of human interactions with the machine.
It is a kind of dualism, as if programmers were somehow not human, and as if we were
not building tools for normal people. But we need to start to integrate these in
resonable steps. My hope is you will see how this is done yourselves.
The other regrettable, and related, dualism, is that which has asserted itself between
'designers' and 'programmers'. This unfotunate division of roles did not exist a quarter
century ago in computing. For the reasons stated above, it has been terribly harmful.
Luckily, outside the corporate and academic world, these have begun to dissolve
somewhat, but the 'standards' are still set by the corporate world, making it unlikely
that this monism will have much of an effect.
Which is why I'm introducing these criteria and the innate human faculty that can judge
them. Although almost no extant software, of any kind, sufficiently meets these criteria,
or sufficiently satisfies this faculty, all things in the world, and all human artifacts,
including software, fulfill these criteria to some degree.
A preliminary necessity
The meanings of words are in the human mind/brain. They are not in the 'outside world',
unless by that you mean the minds of other humans. Specifically, when we say, hear
or think a word, or a sentence, specialized parts of our brain operate, providing us
the opportunity to experience, internally, a particular idea. And with very little
variation, this is true no matter your native language. When someone learns the word
'screwdriver', the same parts of the brain 'light up', entailing 'twist', 'tool',
'point', 'hold', etc. This is why dictionaries work. They make use of words build
of innate areas of the brain, which, when stimulated, become active parts of our
The faculty which I would like everyone to use for usability, I have rather coldly
labeled the Life Detection Faculty, or LDF. It is a part of our perception by which
we judge whether something has 'life' or 'feeling'. These internal meaning of these
words, and others, entail the operation of the LDF, 'lighting up' a particular complex
in the brain that provides meaning to, for example, our judgment of whether something
is a living thing.
For years, people have called properties of things in the outside world 'emergent'
if they had 'complexity' which 'looked like life'. Actually, these are internal
judgments, which make use of a common shared biology. This is a real biological
phenomenon, within our minds. It can be invoked by parts of nature, and human artifacts,
which is why we often say that artworks with particular qualities are 'alive',
even though we do not mean this in a technical biological sense. But there IS a
technical sense of life here: the use of the Life Detecting Faculty. It's not mysticism,
any more than the part of te brain that innately understands what 'climbing' is mystic.
We all share it. It is a genetic endowment. It's just hard to isolate.
So, how do we isolate this faculty that judges, or perceives, life and feeling?
This has been the subject of tremendous effort by many people over the millenia, in
different ways, and I cannot say that I have the answer. All I know is that that
is seems to best be transferred under guidance from someone who has properly isolated
it, and that this has become a difficulty primarily in modern times, where other
innate cognitive faculties (for example, those that divide the world into objects,
properties, networks, functions, etc.) and other external stimuli (for example
flashiness, spectacle, etc.) have interfered with the discovery and use of LDF. It's
still there. We use it whenever we feel we've improved anything. We just rarely
use it conscientiously.
It's the conscious attempt to isolate this faculty which I think could make it available
for more people in this day and age. This is not a cult. This is like trying to
understand some part of you cognition, and make conscientious use of it.
Much of the work to evoke the consequences of application of feeling, in a modern but
non-computing context (with one exception), was done by the architect Christopher
Alexander, in a number of influential books including A Pattern Language.
All of his work can be considered an application of feeling to discern what we can
do to make the world a better place.
He use the LDF as a meter to try to explore the properties of this mental faculty,
or more strictly, the properties of stimuli that provides the impression of life
to our perception.
The problem, again, is that the faculty cannot be explained wwell, if at all, through
books, even though Alexander was a very skilled and evocative writer. In fact, he knew
this quite well, and he an I did computer experiments in the hope that certain kinds
of interactions would evoke the faculty.
But I'm taking the more explicit route, actually telling you that there is something
in your brain we are trying to release ffrom the influence of other parts of your brain.
My hope that people will say "ok, I'll try to train my mind to recognize this stuff and
decide whether or not to make use of it in my work".
If you would like to try to identify the LDF for yourself, I put what I think of
as "self-training tools" on a site called detect.life.
If you have done this, and you're interested in cognitive science behind it, and the
properties of the cognitive faculty, and what little we can say about the properties
of things in the real world that cause this impression to happen, you'll find that
very preliminary research on a site called examine.life.
If you have done this, and would like to know the implications of this work for
usable software and computing, stay here.
If you would like to see my work on other aspects of cognition with implications about
the status of computing as a natural science, please go to conceptual.computer.
That's the best I can do, for the moment, as teasing apart the different aspects of
this overall initiative.