Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 21 November 2009

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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Most debate about modern architecture revolves around aesthetics. This misses the point. I quite like the way many modern buildings look — what I hate is the way they work.

Say what you like about traditional architecture, no one has ever approached the portico of the British Museum and asked, ‘Any idea where the entrance might be?’ By contrast, until recently (when a design team installed some intelligent signage), you could circle the Barbican for hours and still have no idea how to get in. Once inside, you were faced by a baffling array of stairways all heading in random directions.

One requirement of good public architecture — like good software — is that people should navigate it instinctively. Few if any large airports achieve this (see though Gatwick has improved its signage recently, thank God. But imagine what airports and railway stations could be like if they were designed by Apple’s Jonathan Ive. Certainly you wouldn’t need to manhandle luggage down a flight of steps, find a 20p and a 10p and then battle a turnstile just to have a pee.

Much as I am an Apple cynic, I can’t deny the company gets one thing sensationally right: it understands that the interface is the most important part of any technology. Their essential insight owes something to A.N. Whitehead’s observation: ‘Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.’

With technology (and architecture) it’s a safe rule that if the user has to think about how to do something, you have already failed. A volume knob requires no thought, whereas buttons do. In real life, most of our decisions are taken without conscious mental intervention. Try driving a car using the power of conscious thought and you’ll probably crash. The Viz character Mr Logic is a wonderful illustration of someone who tries to make all decisions through ratiocination — and fails hopelessly as a result.

As Mark Earls remarks, ‘Thinking is to humans what swimming is to cats — something we can do if absolutely necessary, but we’d really rather not.’ This is what makes the iPhone (and the hard-on-its-heels breed of Android phones now entering the market) so significant. The ‘app’ — a single-function piece of software which sits on a mobile phone — brings with it a level of intuitive functionality which is better than that of a traditional web browser, even though the screen is a fraction of the size. So significant is this development that many commentators believe the internet has reached the point of ‘peak browser’ where the web-browser becomes less central to our use of the internet. It’s one reason Apple’s widely anticipated pad device has aroused so much pre-launch excitement — for the assumption is that Apple will extend its ecosystem of apps on to a new generation of portable computers resembling large, powerful iPhones with keyboards.

Having just used Ocado’s iPhone application to order a week’s groceries, I think this idea has merit. Already there are many routine tasks (Twitter, Facebook, train timetables, online shopping, finding restaurants) which, thanks to apps, are almost easier to perform on a phone than on a conventional computer. They don’t yet solve the problem of paying for station lavatories — although a GPS-enabled app called ‘Toilet-Finder UK’ may at least help you find them.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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