Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dial Up

Ever wonder why your phone keypad looks like it does, with the "1-2-3" at the top instead of at the bottom like a calculator?

You can thank John Karlin, an industrial psychologist who worked for Bell Labs in the middle of the last century. Karlin died late last month at 94.

The button arrangement is one of the many things that Karlin and his laboratory helped design that persists today even in our cell phones and the layout of the touch-screen "keys" on a smart phone. When Bell developed the technology to make pushbutton phones, they experimented with several designs in order to make them easier to use. Eventually, square buttons in a 3x3 grid, starting at the top left with "1," won out. It combined ease of use with dialing accuracy, an important selling point. Even though an accountant or bookkeeper might be able to dial quickly and accurately on a phone that was organized like an adding machine or calculator, most folks did better with it the other way round. So that's what Bell started making, adding the "0" at the bottom and later adding the "*" and "#" keys on either side of it. The latter, of course, is one of the things which makes Twitter so very much fun and such a useful tool for communicating complex ideas and information.

Karlin was also the fellow who got the phone company to switch from the combination of letter-number dialing to all-numeric. Phone numbers used to have two letters at the front that represented a word. Sometimes the word indicated where the phone with that number was, but not always. My own home number during my days as young Friar had originally been based on the letters FE a decade or so before I inherited it, which stood for "Federal" and gave no guidance at all as to its location.

But the two-letter combination limited the, er, number of numbers that could be created, so Karlin engineered a switch to the all numeric listings to expand the options. Apparently people hated the change, but like with so many things where the supplier has a legal monopoly, they were stuck with it.

The most fascinating part of Karlin's obituary is that Bell worked to design its technology to fit what people did or could do, rather than throw it at them and make them adapt to it. There are a lot of folks making devices, appliances, software, transportation and whatnot today who do nothing of the kind. They create something and then force people to adapt to it. Whether or not the change is a good idea or even necessary isn't a major factor in the design or the decision.

You don't have to be an industrial psychologist to understand that idea's a little cracked.

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