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Jul 2009

Inclusive Design: Usable, yet Educational

On its official blog, Google has recently announced the production of a new, lightweight, simplified operating system:


To commemorate the occasion, I thought I would vocalize my stance on what operating systems today are missing, and how Google might be able to fill that hole.

Macs have a reputation of providing smooth, sleek and usable interfaces.  Linux is well-known as a base for full customizability: tech-savvy users can build their own machine’s architecture.  Windows has many reputations, good and bad, which place it somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  The spectrum lies between offering a practical solution to many of life’s problems and offering the techno-philic an opportunity to customize and create a machine that works to their exact specifications.  The implied question asks whether we are stuck with many different operating systems, each tailored to a different point on this gradient.  Are we doomed to segregation?  Is our technological future littered with incompatibility and a lack of standard?

Technological development may seem divergent, but it’s not too late to move in the right direction.  Operating systems started with cryptic, technical command prompts and eventually evolved to the smooth, intuitive GUIs we know today.  However, the answer is not to simply shove a system’s implementation model behind the scenes in favour of creating a usable mental model, but instead to allow users a practical interface which implicitly builds a foundation of systemic understanding.  Put simply, we are oversimplifying our operating systems so much that, to the laymen of the next generation, computers are considered mere ‘tools’.

The ideal situation is to build a system where users’ practical needs are met while they also enjoy the experience of learning the system.  If done well, their desire for enjoyment will develop into a curiousity which will eventually manifest an urge to explore the system as its own entity (and not just a tool)!  At this point, users begin to form an intimate understanding the true potential of technology to solve problems in all fields (something i learned tinkering with my first DOS machine as a child).  Google is working on a simple OS which seems useful for specific contexts, but I’m skeptical to consider minimalism as the future.  If they, or anyone else, can create a practical and usable operating system while simultaneously accommodating a transparency which engages curiousity and promotes ‘tinkering’, I believe it would be a step in the right direction: toward a unified, practical and educational technology.

I consider this concept as an example of inclusive design as it focuses on generating systems which include all users in the long-term iterative design process.  On the generational time-scale, an operating system which encourages tinkering is providing the next generation with the tools it needs to continue progress.  An inclusive system elegantly solves your general problems while inherently teaching you how to design your own unique solutions in the future.  One part Mac, one part Linux, and a whole lot of hope for the next generation.

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