Tuesday, November 15, 2005


games people (and interfaces) play

Computers are complex. People are complex too. Who gets the last laugh?

I've identified at least three games that people and computer interfaces play with each other.

1) "Make a wish (but be careful what you wish for.)" In this game, people tell the computer exactly what they want, the computer happily obliges. We assume here that people are very clever, and computers are rather less so. This game has a "feel good" factor to it: we are superior to computers.

Now, imagine you could get your computer to cook for you. You might see an interface a bit like one of those "design your own" noodle menus. You choose ramen (noodle type) + chicken (meat) + black sauce (sauce). You get back an assemblage of gunk that tastes tasteless. You realize that cooking something tasty isn't that simple.

2) "Spot the difference (that makes a difference)." In this game, the computer has done all the hard work of gathering the details about different options. Every conceivable option under the sun is available. You just need to choose what you want.

Imagine the computer does your grocery shopping. You want to get some potato chips, and are offered 400 choices. Which one do you want? You feel a bit overwhelmed, trying to figure which one would be best (the extensive listing of ingredients doesn't seem to help either.) You decide that other people must know the answer, so you look at user reviews. All of the options have 80% of feedback comments giving 5 stars, with a disgruntled 20% minority giving 1 star. Doesn't seem to matter what chip, always the same distribution of star ratings.

3) "Guess what I want." In this game, the computer keeps guessing what you want for dinner. Finally, the perfect servant!

The computer finally figures out that you want tofu, after an hour of wrong guesses that assumed you were a carnivore. It cooks the tofu, serves it to you, and you pout. "No, no, no, this isn't what I want at all!" The computer asks what is wrong, and you comment the tofu needs more salt. After adding more salt, the computer is again told it isn't right. It needs more pepper. And so, and so on. The next meal you are offered a decent tofu dish, only you are so tired of thinking about tofu you now want a cheese sandwich. More guessing for the computer.

Computer interfaces play their strongest game with fussy eaters. If you hope to avoid being humilated by your computer, try eating brown rice only.

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