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Engelbart's Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use
Doug Engelbart developed a 5-finger keyboard with keys like a piano, used by one hand...but it was very difficult to learn

The mouse was the original idea of Doug Engelbart who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. It had keys like a piano and was used by one hand. The problem was, the five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn.

In his book, Designing Interactions, Bill Moggridge muses on the improbable invention of the computer mouse.

“Who would choose to point, steer, and draw with a blob of plastic as big and clumsy as a bar of soap? We spend all those years learning to write and draw with pencils, pens, and brushes.”

Who indeed? At the time the mouse was invented other devices such as the light pen, key pads, and joysticks and even the trackball existed or were being considered for pointing devices in computing. How did the mouse come to be the most common pointing device?

The mouse, that unlikely “blob of plastic” was the original idea of Doug Engelbart (pictured) who was the head of the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute. ARC also invented the first word processor, hypertext, and groupware – all of which were first demoed in 1968, 15 years before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa and 13 years before Xerox PARC introduced the Star, the ancestor of the modern personal computer.

The mouse became the pointing device of choice for ARC because it was proven, in user testing, to be the most efficient of all the devices tested.  There was nothing elegant or particularly attractive about Engelbart’s mouse – he adopted it because it required less user-effort and was more precise than anything else they tested.  Engelbart was not interested at all in ease-of-use; he was interested only in improving the efficiency with which humans interacted with computers.



The first mouse

Engelbart had ideas around human-computer interactions that he originally described in 1962 in his seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”  This paper is the foundation of Engelbart’s philosophy on human-computer interaction and it led to the invention of the mouse, hypertext, windows, and groupware.

According to Engelbart, in order to achieve the best human-computer symbiosis – an objective that is central to his Augmenting Intellect philosophy – users need to be trained to use the most efficient computer artifacts (e.g. pointing devices, keyboards, etc.).  Engelbart did not believe that computers should be easy for novices to use; he believed that people would require lengthy training in order to be truly effective. Specifically, he wanted computer interactions to be based on systems that, with considerable training, were the most efficient – not the easiest to use.

Engelbart 's philosophy is best embodied, in my opinion, in the design of another device that he invented, the five-finger keyboard. The keyboard had keys like a piano and was used by one hand.  It was based on chords, sort of like a guitar, where pressing combinations of buttons output certain characters.



The NLS keyset

The five-finger keyboard was used in combination with a three-button mouse so that your left hand was always on the keyboard and your right hand was always on the mouse. The two devices complemented each other and allowed extremely fast data entry and computer interactions.  The problem was, Engelbart’s five-finger keyboard and mouse combination was very difficult to learn. Bill Moggridge describes the use of these devices together in Designing Interactions, as follows:

“This is how the interactions were designed. On the mouse, one button was to click, another was called command accept, and the third was called command delete. If you wanted to delete a word, you hit the middle button on the keypad, which was the letter d. It was d because it is the fourth letter in the alphabet and this was a binary coding, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16.  If it was the letter f, it was the sixth letter so you’d hit the 2 and the 4 keys at the same time.“



First demo model of Engelbart’s five-finger keyboard and mouse combination

Using the five-finger keyboard and the mouse together a user had access to an enormous amount of functionality – far beyond what you can do with the full QWERTY keyboard, mouse, and GUI systems of today.  Sadly, however, the use of these devices in combination was simply too difficult.  This was a recurring theme in Engelbart’s work: in order to use his computer systems you had to master the input devices, which took a lot of training. This is Engelbart’s Dilemma. His systems were far more efficient and potentially more powerful human-computer interfaces, but they were extremely difficult for novice users.

Today, human-computer interaction is focused on ease-of-use and learnability. Ideally, people should be immediately effective with a computer the first time they use it. The emphasis is on usability – without the necessity of training. The exact opposite of Engelbart’s approach.

Engelbart’s dilemma is that his philosophy produced some of the best computer technologies of our age (e.g. mouse, windows, word processing, etc.), but the full realization of his vision is completely counter to way interaction designers think of computers systems today. In fact, Engelbart's belief in efficiency over ease-of-use places him in the fringe of computer interaction design today. That’s sad considering he’s done more for interaction design than any else I can think of.

Are Engelbart’s ideas about efficiency over ease-of-use completely crazy?  I don't think so – not entirely.  I once heard or read (I can’t remember which) that Engelbart compared his interaction system to that of the violin. In essence, he said that the violin is an awkward instrument for novices but that, with training, a good musician can create incredibly beautiful music. My son trained in the violin for a couple of years, and I can attest to the amount of practice it took to master even simple melodies, but I’ve also seen good students play music that moved me more than any other instrument I have ever heard. Perhaps, like the violin, people could reach a new level of synergy with computers if they followed Engelbart’s philosophy and focused on efficiency over ease-of-use. 

The truth is we may never know if Engelbart is right, because the computer is the province of the masses and not just expert users.  If we were designing a musical instrument today, our focus on ease-of-use and learning would probably lead us to the kazoo rather than the violin.

This column appears exclusively at SYS-CON.com. Copyright © 2008 Richard Monson-Haefel.
(This copyright notice supersedes the one auto-generated at the foot of this page.)

About Richard Monson-Haefel
Richard Monson-Haefel, an award-winning author and technical analyst, owns Richard Monson-Haefel Consulting. Formerly he was VP of Developer Relations at Curl Inc. and before that a Senior Analyst at The Burton Group. He was the lead architect of OpenEJB, an open source EJB container used in Apache Geronimo, a member of the JCP Executive Committee, member of JCP EJB expert groups, and an industry analyst for Burton Group researching enterprise computing, open source, and Rich Internet Application (RIA) development.

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Reader Feedback: Page 1 of 1

I use the the Bluetooth Frogpad to do much the same as his keyboard. It uses chords too. I had to work on it for about 7 weeks before I was typing 30wpm. Now after a year, I can switch hands (I have a left and right frogpad) and use the mouse at the same time typing about 45 wpm. For reference, I type about 60 wpm on a full keyboard. I see a huge difference in normal day to day tasks. If I could split the mouse and keyboard across separate apps it would only get better.

It's great to see Doug's back in the news. There are few computer pioneers who remain relevant beyond their natural career span. Thanks for the article. I know that it's been a frustration of love for Doug to see so many of his ideas reamin in the archives. I encourage all new computer scientists and engineers to review Doug's early papers. It's a gold mine of ideas!

Doug once mentioned that he trained his daughters when they were young and it did not take them long to learn it.

I think the Accordion keyboard did not get enough exposure for us to test out the theory whether it is more difficult to learn. Valerie Landau did a study with her students in CSUMB with some interesting results and has built several prototypes since then.

Have you seen teenagers texting? They use one hand, and type faster than we can on a qwerty keyboard.

The opencourse.org has some material on some of the CSUMB studies.

Engelbart believed everyone should be striving toward just the capability and collective intelligence he outlined in his “Augmenting Human Intellect,” and he also believed that if we didn’t, we were surely doomed as a civilization.

Engelbart was concerned with tools for group collaboration, process hierarchies, and multi-level nesting of organizational knowledge. Take a look a his “mother of all demos” demo, which is indeed truly amazing. Here's the link: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=mother+of+all+demos&search_type=

I like Doug Engelbart as much as the next guy, but you’d think we could move beyond 1968, the icon, the mouse and the window.


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