Leonardo made limited

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

In attempting to use da Vinci as the muse for web designers, Ben Shneiderman turns Renaissance man upside down. 

In his new book Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, design guru Ben Shneiderman calls upon us to consider Leonardo da Vinci's achievements in combining mastery of art with scientific exploration.

Leonardo da Vinci is Shneiderman's muse for thinking about how to innovate with technology and humanity in mind. Shneiderman, who has been leading the cause of 'human-centred' design for over 20 years, now asks 'Where are the graphic geniuses and the web designer Leonardos whose work stirs and thrills us?' (1). According to Shneiderman, if there were a Leonardo for our times, he would have to commit to two principles: 'Technical excellence must be in harmony with user needs. Great works of art and science are for everyone.' (2)

Some of us might wince at comparisons between Leonardo da Vinci's contribution to human civilisation and modern trends in internet development - particularly when you consider what Shneiderman is proposing that 'web designer Leonardos' should do.

Leonardo's Laptop is a call to arms for designers who argue about the lack of attention given to customer needs. It's not about what computing can do, but rather what 'users want to do' (3). Shneiderman urges us to 'promote good design by getting angry about the quality of the user interface and the underlying infrastructure' (4). Hardly the kind of issues you can imagine preying on da Vinci's mind.

But while Ben Shneiderman is no modern-day Leonardo, he is a significant figure in the world of web design. He is the founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland (5), and in addition to his many books and papers on human computer interaction, he has been responsible for two high-profile projects: Spotfire (a software tool which visualises large amounts of complex information) and Smartmoney (which implemented Shneiderman's marketmap visualisation technique mapping stock market economic value) (6).

In its own terms, Leonardo's Laptop raises some interesting questions - and gives a stark expression of the concerns preoccupying web designers today. After getting angry about quality, proposes Shneiderman, the next step should be to widen accessibility to technology, so that it extends to sections of society with broader needs. With larger audiences, he says, we will get better-designed solutions: 'We have come to learn that diversity promotes quality. Accommodating to diversity pushes designers to produce higher quality for all users.' (7) His term for this principle is 'universal usability'.

Change, according to Shneiderman, should start bottom-up - with the consumer as agent. He asks why we should pay software companies who make products with mistakes, his argument being that we should expect a return every time we come up against an error, malfunction, or meaningless dialogue box. The software industry should regularly announce updates and product recalls, like the motor car industry.

These arguments spell good news for the expanding army of usability professionals who have taken centre stage in the aftermath of the dotcom boom and crash. But as I have argued before on spiked, it is questionable whether this approach spells good news for the development of the internet (See Excuse-ability, by Martyn Perks).

'Shneiderman views us as needy individuals, using technology as the crutch

In the absence of innovative business ideas and commitment to innovation, all we are left with is a discussion about how to produce interfaces that take user needs into account. Most businesspeople today agree that the future is about the customer, and those who defend the need to sustain competitive advantage are few and far between. This concern to play down to the user creates a climate that is not conducive to bold ideas or risk-taking in design.

Shneiderman shies away from competition, because it causes pain and confrontation. He quotes Thomas L Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalisation: 'In the old world, you were defined by your competitors, in the new world you are defined by your collaborators and partners.' (8)

For Shneiderman 'the new computing is about collaboration and empowerment - individually, organisationally, and societally' (9). The key to his thesis is that individuals are empowered by their relationship with others, not by what they are capable of. This framework starts with the individual, moves through family, friends and work colleagues, and ends with the individual as citizen. Shneiderman describes how we can fulfil our relationships with technology using an 'Activity and Relationship Table'.

Shneiderman lambasts the 'old computing', in which design was driven by technology. Marketing the speed of microprocessors is ultimately irrelevant to the end user, he says, because all users care about is a good experience. He rejects a 'top-down' approach to developing products and services, where products are foisted on the unwary customer. So out with creating products which are governed by market forces, in with designing for the customer's needs, first and foremost.

Again, this strategy risks reinforcing the trend of going for the lowest common denominator in web design - working on the basis of what the user is assumed to want and be able to cope with, rather than what the designer thinks might be good.

Shneiderman claims that he is promoting the use of technology to transform our lives. But he goes halfway there, if that. He views people as needy individuals, with technology as the crutch to steady us. He asks how technology can 'support peaceful outcomes, conflict resolution, or violence reduction? Can computers support reflection as well as action? Self-awareness as well as compassion?' (10). There are many possibilities for the roles that technology can play in the future - but computers-as-therapists is surely one thing we could do without.

Computers-as-teachers is another. When it comes to education, Shneiderman's aim is to foster 'critical thinking, analytic strategies, and working with people: family and friends, neighbours and colleagues, and citizens and markets', with the goal of improved communication skills. 'Why shouldn't every student get an A?', he asked a recent spiked-seminar in London (11). Instead of an educational agenda which encourages individual excellence, Shneiderman's is an inclusive agenda that is all about preparing the student for 'participation in communities' (12).

Shneiderman wants technology to enhance collaborative learning - peer-to-peer participation with students, collaborating and publishing work online, opening it up for others to view and critique. But although technology will inevitably have an impact upon education, unless we are careful, it may become a substitute for learning.

'Shneiderman's focus is a world away from Leonardo's bold vision

Continuing his theme of 'participation', Shneiderman goes on to encourage use of technology in the democratic process, to bring diverse sections of society together through access to services and government. Shneiderman wants to improve 'citizen-to-government communication', citing email as an important means through which we can talk to officials. By collaborating and mentoring others, he suggests that we could 'form public interest groups', with the aim of producing 'local and national proposals' (13).

While no one can cap Shneiderman's enthusiasm for bridging the gap between government and the individual, this is all naive at best. Politicians are only too pleased to receive our emails, when they are at a loss to bridge the gap between themselves and us - but what are they going to say in response? Access to politicians is the least of our worries - the problem is that politics is bereft of any vision that inspires us.

Shneiderman's focus on needy individuals is a world away from Leonardo's bold vision of Renaissance man. Leonardo put us at the centre of the world, as exemplified by his famous diagram of the Vitruvian Man (14). Shneiderman takes this centrality and changes it into a passive, rather than an active, stance: 'Applying Leonardo's phrase that "work must commence with the conception of man" will push us toward a user-centered design process, with technology on the periphery' (15).

Leonardo proposed a transformation of knowledge through science and art. He transformed our view of the world, because he did not accept the limits imposed upon his thinking by his contemporaries. Shneiderman, on the other hand, seems keen to align Leonardo's vision with a framework of limits.

Innovation which pushes our view of ourselves beyond the immediate ceases to be possible, if technology has to be all-inclusive. Shneiderman champions participation, access and collaboration, but at the expense of realising the potential of individuals. Instead of lowering our horizons in this way, we should be celebrating our ability to transcend our immediate needs. After all, Leonardo managed to, over 550 years ago.

Leonardo's Laptop goes some way towards envisioning how technology could change our lives. But Shneiderman's view of humankind is significantly lower than we should expect.


(1) Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, Ben Shneiderman, MIT Press, 2002, p3

(2) ibid, p242

(3) ibid, p63

(4) ibid, p14

(5) See the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory website

(6) See the Spotfire and Smartmoney websites

(7) ibid, p15

(8) ibid, p59

(9) ibid, p59

(10) ibid, p18

(11) ibid, p115

(12) ibid, p131

(13) ibid, p191

(14) See the Vitruvian Man

(15) ibid, p15