“Lefting” the User-Friendly

Friday, April 18th, 2014 by samanthalong88

Here is the rationale behind my final project: One of my very first experiences in the MAL was playing on the Atari with Kyle. We were playing the football cartridge, and for the life of me I could not figure out how to control my on-screen players with the joystick. The movements seemed inverted and alien until I discovered I had been operating the joystick with the “wrong hand,”–my left hand–and had twisted the controller from its intended position to accommodate this. Perhaps if it had been a newer console I would have caught my mistake sooner, conforming my play to the design without a second thought. But, because I had struggled for several minutes (under the assumption that the gameplay was just different because the console was old), my mistake was something of a revelation. Just how often were assumed “user-friendly” designs touted by our technologies (and our technology companies) not really user-friendly at all? Or, perhaps the better question: who is the “user” in “user-friendly?”

This question does not only apply to issues of handedness; as I looked into custom, one-handed game controllers later in the semester, I saw just how quickly issues of accessibility and disability came to the fore when discussing the ideologies and limitations inherent in the user-friendly (as well as in the creation of this “baseline” user by designers). Technology’s second grandest claim, that it opens up worlds and opportunities to all bodies, seemed at odds with this quest for ease of use and operation (or, at the least, there’s often a sharp price difference when comparing “user-friendly” technologies and technologies available for differently abled bodies). Perhaps this could be excused as nothing more than an adherence to the logic of supply and demand, but then there it is–the inextricable link between “user-friendly” and capitalist enterprise. “User-friendly” meets the needs of mass production, and one result is that these technologies lock out/block out/change the experience of themselves for many users. And another unintended result is that this need for mass-producible user-friendliness limits the ways we can/could engage with and subsequently innovate our technologies, present and future.

And here is my plan: In my project, I am taking up issues of handedness and other accessibility concerns when it comes to the design of technologies like keyboards, controllers, phones, hand-held games, etcetera. I am particularly interested in how left-handedness works within systems designed for the right-handed user, and how those with different bodies “undermine” (in a good way) these devices for their own use (especially when private companies would prefer to make money off their various conditions with expensive, “specialty” devices). I would like to highlight these experiences in a visual way, transforming common, user-friendly designs into images such as this through Photoshop:


My “Lefted” Keyboard, click to enlarge

Along with these images, I want to use quotes from usability/design textbooks and guidebooks as well as creative commentary to underline/riff off the ideas presented in my rationale. The end result will be a booklet of text and images (as coffeetable-like in style as you can get with 8.5×11 paper), hopefully encapsulating and expressing my intended messages.

Issues I’m still wrestling with: Because I’m still in the midst (and mist) of this project, my biggest concern at this point is balancing the issues of left-handedness with other differences which cause the “user-friendly” to be questioned. While I initially only wanted to focus on left-handedness, it seemed a disservice to overlook the much larger problems with (and implications of) user-friendly designs for differently abled bodies . Another challenge this project presents is how to convey more traditional criticism in artistic and visual ways; it is not something I’ve been given the chance to do in the past, and want to be sure I select and transform devices in ways that will give me the most bang for my buck (speaking of capitalism). Finally, because I am far from a Photoshop expert, I am discovering some of my limitations with the software when it comes to manipulating these images. At this point, I am trying to think of how this struggle could be incorporated into the project itself (which perhaps could flesh out my reasoning for making this a creative work in the first place).


2 comments on ““Lefting” the User-Friendly

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Sammy, this sounds so fascinated and like you’re absolutely on the right track to producing a compelling final project. I’m not sure you need to worry too much about the larger issues of differently abled bodies as left-handedness could either be a stand-in for larger issues or be a small, limited intervention – which is useful in itself. I have a lot of references to HCI design and use friendly in my book – let me know if you need any more references.

  2. eadodge says:

    I like the idea here — specifically, I remember in class that the notion of seeing one’s writing as one wrote differentiated handwriting from the typewriter. However, as someone (you or Adrian?) pointed out, a left-handed writer doesn’t see their writing in the same way because the hand obscures it as the person continues across the page. I’m not sure if you’re going to touch on Kitler’s differences between mediums or the way that a left-handed person might see the transition to typewriter as somewhat easier, even — just food for thought.

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