A Brief Review of Leonardo's Laptop

Janice Critchlow is a technical writer in the Software Information Products Group. She has been a valued member of the Software User Interface Review Board (UIRB) for many years.

Picture of book cover Imagine a change in the way that we think about and design technology -- a change comparable to those that Leonardo DaVinci influenced in the arts and sciences in the 15th Century. That is the premise of Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, authored by Ben Shneiderman. It's not exactly a book that asks What would Leonardo do? but more a call to action for computer user experience to undergo something of a Renaissance.

Ben starts by reviewing some history related to Leonard DaVinci and computer experiences. Among other things, he cites several instances in which poor user interface design causes more than just inefficient work, but actually causes injury. He talks about how developments in technology relate to user experiences, and goes on to suggest that our technology-centric approach to user interface design should become more user-centric.

After defining the user-centered approach to design, Ben examines the user experience in several segments of our worldview in detail: education, commerce, medicine, and politics. For each segment, he suggests how changing the way that we experience technology could significantly improve our lives.

From my perspective as an information designer, two key concepts jumped out at me. The first was Ben's assertion that a "user interface" encompasses much more than just the look-and-feel of an application and that we need to consider this expanded definition when designing our products. Specifically, he mentions the importance of items such as:

  • Documentation
  • Quality assurance
  • Simplicity
  • Good error handling built into the product
  • Testing

The second major concept was a discussion about getting users to know what they need to know ("bridging the gap"). Ben talks about the different ways that people learn and a variety of techniques that we can use to enhance that learning. Some techniques are within the product interfaces themselves, while others fit into the more traditional "training" space.

References to Leonardo DaVinci's life and works are scattered throughout the discussion, which make for an engaging, although somewhat esoteric, read.

If you're looking for a book about technology, history, and user experience that makes you think, this is an excellent choice. If you're looking for a "formula" to solve all user experience problems, this book is not the answer. In fact, my interpretation of Ben's writing is that there is no simple formula to solve all user experience design problems. Instead, we need to use an approach that considers the users' needs before all else as we mesh technology, sociology, psychology, and art.

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