For the first time in human history, we were in a position to largely eradicate famine and poverty, and create a world in which everyone has an opportunity for a long, enjoyable, and productive life. The key is not charity (though there may always be a need for the better off to help the less fortunate), but the wise development and application of science and technology, fueled by both public government and private foundation support and commercial profit.
We have the know-how
Thanks largely to the rapid advances in science and technology over the second half of the twentieth century, we had the basic scientific and technological know-how to ensure that every living person has access to clean water, adequate food supplies, global information, and worldwide communications. What we did not yet have is the knowledge to provide these key components in ways that everyone can use. Just because a twelve-year old middle class child in Palo Alto could surf the Web and find a description of the medication he or she has just been prescribed didn’t mean that a thirty-five-year-old father of four in rural India or sub-Saharan Africa would know how to do it even if given the access.
Technologies are powerful and remarkably pliant in the hands of those who are both literate and sufficiently savvy to use them. But much of their power is lost on over half the world’s population. The people for whom these technologies would be most transformative were the ones who, even if they had physical access, would not be able to use them.
In theory, there are two ways out of this dilemma. One is to embark on a worldwide program of universal literacy and technological skill acquisition. The other is to design the technologies such that they can be used by any human being. The first option is a great dream, but likely to remain that for some decades to come. The second option can be pursued now.
Understand the users
Technologies are designed largely for consumers who are literate and familiar with using similar devices. Designers, by and large, design things to be used by people not unlike themselves. They have to, since those are the only users they really know. For what is missing is deep, fundamental understanding of how people use technology and knowledge of how to design for use by people coming from different backgrounds.
For example, the user experience innovations of the Apple Macintosh interface (significantly influencing Microsoft Windows) made computers accessible and usable to people who knew nothing about programming or how computers worked. But they had to be familiar with a (regular, physical) desktop. There is no reason why we cannot make computers usable to individuals who are not even literate. We need to figure out how to do it.
Everyone can benefit
But it’s not just the developing world that can benefit from greater understanding of how people work with technology. Every one of us is regularly frustrated by technologies that are difficult to operate or that make us feel inept. We drive cars that sometimes collide, although the technology exists to make that a virtual impossibility. (The challenge is integrating it safely into the driving experience in a way that drivers are comfortable with.) We find ourselves frustrated by websites and automated phone systems that are cumbersome to negotiate. And a massive population bulge of aging people is already starting to highlight still more problems with technology.
The H-STAR challenge
There is no shortage of smart people with good ideas for how to improve things, but much of the activity today consists of isolated, scatter-shot projects. What is needed is a deep, solid science of how people use technologies, on which future developments can build. H-STAR sets its sights on this hugely important goal.