Let's hear it for humanity

Waaak waaak waaak. I often make that noise when I realize how badly I just parked. But soon my car will do it for me. And "Cock-a-doodle-dooooo!'' or possibly "Waaaaaaah!'' if my engine catches fire. True, for now I still must clap manually at the news that British psychologist Denis McKeown is working on a whole new series of alarm sounds for cars. But let's hear it for humane engineering, and devices designed as if intended for human users. Monday's Citizen says Mr. McKeown got so fed up with "the meaningless beeps and buzzes that serve as alarms in cars'' that he set out to test a whole range of alternatives, from roosters to ocean waves to a crying baby.

We certainly need more sounds; the problem of multiple alarms that could be anything from an unfastened seatbelt to a door that's ajar to imminent hull breach was already a cliché by 1977's Kentucky Fried Movie, and it will only get worse as technology gives us navigation aids, radar to help us avoid collisions and a multitude of other sensory and warning devices. But there's more.

We also need alarms that have more to do with the problem they are warning us about and, especially, its urgency. The broader concept here, introduced to me in Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface, is an "affordance,'' the technical term for a control system whose use is immediately obvious to a human being.

Mr. Raskin's specific subject was computer operating systems, whose eccentricities I had always taken for granted until he convinced me they could easily be far more user-friendly. Fortunately, I have now forgotten about half of his suggestions, which makes it easier to put up with their absence. But I still remember clearly his vivid preliminary example of the way things ought to be but aren't.

We all know, he says, how baffling it usually is to set the clock on a VCR. Why? All you'd need is a little button above the hour display with an up arrow and a one below it with a down arrow, and ditto above and below the minute display. Would anyone, even an adult, have two seconds' trouble guessing how it worked? And there are no technical difficulties; it's just a matter of realizing the importance of humane design.

I think people are beginning to do so. I see more affordances around us than there once were. For instance, those arrows that go from blue to red around hotel shower taps. (The exact opposite are my mother's bilingual taps, one labeled C for Cold and the other C for Chaud.) Halfway in between is my current windshield wiper; you turn the end of the lever to speed it up or slow it down, but do the thicker dashes mean longer pauses or heavier action?

For that matter, why should the windshield wiper and turn signal be two very similar sticks poking out of the steering column? Why can't the windshield wiper be a knob you press to start, and turn away from you to speed up?

Here science and engineering are part hero, part villain. For instance, Mr. McKeown and his 40 volunteers have established by experiment that the sound of the ocean lapping on a beach is not an effective alarm noise. It seems screeching tires work better, as does breaking glass. If they paid for that advice, I wish I'd been there to submit a lower bid. (And judging by the story, they didn't try some obvious alarm possibilities like "voice of mother-in-law.'') They are mostly on the right track, suggesting things like a bird song for minor matters like low washer fluid and a rooster noise to say it's time to service your engine. But Mr. McKeown says, "If it were easy to do this just by intuition, then the sounds already in use in vehicles would be appropriate. They are not.'' And there I think he's significantly wrong.

Intuition works, all right. It just hasn't been tried enough. The reason engineering, with some exceptions, has failed to think in terms of affordances for human beings is that in the past half century we've had too much social science and not enough humanity in an amazing range of areas from architecture to social programs to appliance design.

But things are changing in a subtle yet pervasive way that may, ultimately, overshadow even what Prime Minister Paul Martin has called the most important election in our history though otherwise he hasn't called it.

For instance, London's Sunday Times reports a trend among architects toward healthier buildings with meeting rooms and cafeterias far from offices and stairs attractively placed. As though they were made for real people, not human units.

Couple that with other trends, from computer mice shaped to fit the human hand to car alarm noises that are readily, humanely intelligible, and I think the tide has turned.

What a soothing sound.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson