Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals

Instruction manuals, and instructions in general, are incredibly important. I could be biased, since part of my job involves writing instructions for systems, but really, they’re important!

As this look into the historical importance of manuals makes clear, manuals (and instructions) make accessible professions, tools, and devices to anyone that can read them (which, admittedly, could be a hurdle of its own):

“With no established guild system in place for many of these new professions (printer, navigator, and so on), readers could, with the help of a manual, circumvent years of apprenticeship and change the course of their lives, at least in theory.”

However, as the economy and labor system shifted, manuals did too:

“in the 1980s, the manual began to change. Instead of growing, it began to shrink and even disappear. Instead of mastery, it promised competence.”

And nowadays, manuals are very rarely separate from the devices or systems they seek to explain:

“the help we once sought from a manual is now mostly embedded into the apps we use every day. It could also be crowdsourced, with users contributing Q&As or uploading how-to videos to YouTube, or it could programmed into a weak artificial intelligence such as Siri or Cortana.”

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Software, Sharing, and Music

Here’s what was important this week…

Software is everywhere lately. My boyfriend asked me what I thought the next big website would be (after the success of Google, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I realized it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to be a software application rather than a website. Paul Ford took some time to enshrine some works of software in a “software canon” — Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Pacman, the Unix operating system, and eMacs (which I’d never heard of until this essay came out).

Software has had a noticeable effect on our day to day lives (especially those with smartphones), but it’s also had a huge impact on music and the way it’s created, recorded, and produced. Fact Magazine went through 14 works of software that shaped modern music (electronic music started way earlier than I thought). One of those software applications is Auto-Tune, and the Sounding Out! blog happened to post about the history of Auto-Tune.

 

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Tech tidbit: an observation

Newt might’ve been onto something. It’s jarring to see pieces about the “internet of things” written using a dumb vs smart dichotomy. Once something becomes networked it becomes a “smart” device where previously it was a “dumb” device. It attributes an odd sense of inferiority on mere “manufactured” devices which are excellent at what they do–toasters, for example. Why do we refer to networked devices as “smart” inherently?

The article that sparked this thought train.

Certainly having Internet access gives one access to greater information, and having networked devices enables one to easily and efficiently collect data on such machines, but to what end? Smart meters in electricity are lauded as reducing the guessing game and allowing power companies (and homeowners) to evaluate their electricity usage and ways to reduce consumption. But they involve many pros and cons.

The myriad definitions of “smart” make defining networked devices as smart devices quite easy, and meaningful when assessing this dichotomy. In terms of smart meters, one might say they’re called such because choosing to install one could be a shrewd investment in ones energy savings. However, when it comes to devices with more fluid functions, like the smartphone, it becomes a bit more difficult to discern where such a prefix came from, and why analog devices have come to be known as “dumb”. Perhaps instead of shaming Newt Gingrich for his tech illiteracy we should entertain the idea that he might, in fact, be onto something as he searches for a new definition that goes beyond calling a networked device merely “smart”.