Smörgåsbord or À la carte for the end-users?

How are values embedded into technology, and should designers care? One of the popular examples of values in technology is the (in)famous story of how supposedly the motorway bridges to Long Island were designed to keep the less wealthy people outside the island’s resorts and beaches (see Winner L (1980) “Do artifacts have politics?”). The story goes that the bridges’ tunnels were so low that a bus could not fit into them, and hence, unwealthy people who rode public transport could not enter. The bridge embedded a set of social values. The story is too good to be true, and a good argument against the Long Island case is made by Joerges (Joerges B (1999) “Do politics have artifacts?”). Nevertheless, the idea that supposedly neutral technology embodies a set of values is the takeaway from the story and worth pondering, so lets ponder. Let us take a look at two rival smart phones from few years ago: the Nokia N95 and the first iPhone. Both entering the public consciousness in 2007. What kind of values about technology use these embody? The Nokia N95 had all the bells and whistles: GPS, 5MP still camera, VGA video camera, live video telephony, mp3 player, 3G network, WiFi, Bluetooth, IrDA, web browser… The engineering philosophy trickling between all the features and functions was that “we provide all the latest technology, the user selects what he/she needs”. The iPhone in 2007 did not have a video camera, no GPS, and no 3G. At the time it was puzzling that such a limited device became popular. Of course, as all iPhone users know, Apple chose to make the few functionalities the phone had extremely attractive to use – especially web browsing. The overarching designer philosophy was “we decide what you need, and superbly design for those needs”. For me the N95 philosophy resonates with my engineering background. Feel free to disagree, but typically in engineering culture the idea is to serve the user or customer by providing complex technology on a silver tray. This approach is very egalitarian, i.e., equal and even emancipating for the users. Perhaps not surprisingly the N95 was created in Finland, a Nordic country famous for its social welfare and democracy. The iPhone philosophy is different, and familiar to Apple users in general. It is an enlightened dictatorship in which the designer(s) knows best and makes it perfect for the end-user. The end-user is pretty much left with a choice of “take it or leave it”. And it seems that many people “take it”. For those who don’t know, Apple is not from a Nordic country but from Silicon Valley, US. My point is about user-centric design: Which one is user-centric? A) to give the user a choice out of a smörgåsbord of technology; the user has power to choose, but perhaps the number of options is paralysing the usability. B) to understand the user and make decisions on his/her behalf and design killer usability for the limited à la carte menu?