I’m Sorry, I’m an Apologist!

Being an “apologist” means never having to say you’re sorry, or at least I wish it did. According to Alan Cooper, the author of “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum,” there are two kinds of people in the world, apologists and survivors.

I am proud to be an apologist. If you have read Cooper, then you may be asking yourself why would you own up to being an apologist? If you have not read Cooper, I will explain what it means to be an apologist, a survivor, and why I think the apologists are crucial for us to move forward with technology and design.

What is an apologist? As defined by Cooper, an apologist looks at technology and defends it. To use Cooper’s phrase, an apologist says, “Look at what the computer lets me do!” The apologist loves the technology to the point of defending it and making apologies for it when the technology fails. Cooper goes as far as claiming that the apologist suffers from Stockholm syndrome.

Before I can explain why I am proud to be an apologist, I must define the other side of the coin, the survivor. Cooper says that the survivors “are the vast majority of people who are not impressed by the newfound power, but who are mighty impressed by how stupid the interaction makes them feel.“ Basically these are the folks that just come short of loathing new technology. They accept that they need to use it, but get frustrated quickly when the technology doesn’t allow them to do what they want to do, but instead forces them to do it the computers way.

So, what makes me an apologist? First I must confess I was rather embarrassed reading the difference between the two groups of people. I realized as soon as Cooper described the apologists, I was one. Then I immediately realized I spend a lot of my time helping and problem-solving for the survivors.

My apologist ways began early in life. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a video teacher that always said, in the world of television, learn how to do everything. The more you learn the more valuable you are, the more job security you have. I took those words to heart, and since those days in high school I soaked up as much know-how as I could, little did I realize there was a digital revolution going on.

I learned how to do everything, which included a lot of technical jobs. I could write and report if I needed to, but the technical things were fun. I enjoyed playing with the new and improved toys. These toys allowed me to do my job better and more efficiently. The problem with new toys is, not too many people know how to fix them (as they are new).

When my newsroom made the change over from editing video in the tape-to-tape format, we switched to a computer program called Avid Newscutter. Avid is a very common name is TV. There is an inside joke in TV that Avid is just another four letter word people curse with. Avid is a company that makes many non-linear editing systems.

There was a lot of fear when making a major switch like this. Everyone trusted the old way, and the new way was all computerized. While the computer offered us more options and more functions to edit with, the fear was that we could loose the footage and possibly not get our broadcast on each night.

A few weeks before the newsroom started the switch over I went off for a special two-day crash course in Avid Newscutter. I was the only one, and I came back with my mind just spinning. I was thrilled and excited. I could see all the potential for a better newsroom. I saw how we could edit faster and get more work done than ever before. The problem was teaching everyone.

From that moment forward I spent all my time editing only in Newscutter. I quickly learned all that I could about the program. What I didn’t know, I looked up and studied. A few months later our newsroom completed the switch over. The Avid conversion team stayed with us for a couple of days and went home. What they left behind was a room of very confused people who were nervous about what was going to happen next. After a few weeks everyone calmed down and a lot of people adapted very quickly, but as problems came up, I was able to go around and solve them.

Cooper says the apologists thrive on the problem solving and enjoy the challenges they are faced with. I admit I love a good challenge and in the first couple of years, I enjoyed being able to solve everyone’s edit bay problems. Now, however, the consistent issues are getting old. The problems are the same and the survivors of the newsroom are getting more and more frustrated that Avid has created a program based on a design from engineers, rather than everyday users.

This is a really tough issue with the design of Avid’s products (as with most editing products); the designer is not the everyday user. When I have a serious issue that is way over my head I call our own engineers. When they come to take a look at the problem, it can take a lot of time explaining what went wrong and why there is a problem. There are the basics like why won’t the machine turn on, or where has all my video gone that I just captured into the system? Then there are more technical issues that leave the engineers asking why anyone would want to do something like that. Well that’s just it, as the day-to-day editor there are a great many things we may want to do that they just can’t conceive as an engineer. As an editor I could develop a list a mile long with options I would like and the easy ways of accessing and using those options.

Could this be the voice of a survivor inside of me? Perhaps, or it could just be that as an apologist I hear all the complaints. I see all the problems that the others face, and while I know how to deal with the problems head on, I also see the need to end those re-occurring problems. If these editing programs were based more on spending time with the user and re-designed based on their needs we would save a great deal of time and frustration on the survivors’ part.

The whole point of Cooper’s book is to appeal to engineers and designers to change their ways. He asks them to stop designing complicated programs and technology that the world must fight to learn and understand. Instead, cater to the needs of the user, and start with how they want to use the technology, then make it. It’s a point that author Dan Saffer also makes in his book, “Design For Interaction.”

Saffer says there are good interaction designs and bad ones, but that the most important rule is to design for the user. He says that interaction design is about the behavior, and interaction between machine and user.

I love Apple computers. Half the joy of starting grad school was that I knew I would need a new computer and I knew that I was going to get a new Macbook. I even went as far as convincing myself that I needed a new i-Pod Nano as well. You see it’s the technology that I love. The idea that I can tackle the task at hand with newer and greater technology excites me. I also get excited that I can solve more problems than I was able to before with the newer technology. While the survivor might see it as frustrating to continuously need to get new equipment, I love it. Yes I will admit it’s too much money to spend over and over again, and Apple is especially too expensive, and certainly could drop prices, but purchasing an Apple product has become fun. Sadly that doesn’t take the sting out of my wallet.

During the day I work on Windows. I edit on Windows and do all of my job-required duties on Windows. Then I get to come home and play on my Mac. I could do all of the same jobs on my Mac, but we don’t have Macs at work. Many times I will save some of the work to be done at home so that I can do it on my Mac. Now I could start a Mac versus PC debate here, but I won’t, Macs are just better.

I am an apologist, and proud of it. I love my technology and I love that technology helps me expand my thinking by flexing my problem solving skills. Others may see it as frustrating, but I see it as a advancing my knowledge of how the technology works. It’s that knowledge that would make a good designer. We need the apologists in order to advance the world of design. Without one we can’t have the other. The apologists can see the problems and because of their love of the technology can think about how to make it better. The apologist works towards better communication with the engineer, opens the lines of communication. As an apologist, I can talk to the engineers better about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. I can explain better to them why the survivor is angry and can’t function. The more apologists that can do this the closer we are to a world without either survivors or apologists, just a world of users.