Ken Thompson has an automobile which he helped design. Unlike most automobiles, it has neither speedometer, nor gas gauge, nor any of the other numerous idiot lights which plague the modern driver. Rather, if the driver makes a mistake, a giant “?” lights up in the center of the dashboard. “The experienced driver,” says Thompson, “will usually know what’s wrong.”
—Anonymous (from The Unix-Haters Handbook)
I think Thompson must have been involved in the design of the Segway. I had occasion to try one out last week; according to their Web site, the Segway’s display “tells you only what you need to know, preserving Segway HT’s intuitive nature….The display transmits information by way of a face, the most basic and universal means of human communication.” When I first stepped onto the Segway, the face turned to a frown, the display flashed red, and the motor made a growling noise. It was very clear that the Segway was mad at me. However, I had no idea why, and it gave me no clue as to what I could do to make it happy.
Was it low on battery? Maybe. Did I have it in the wrong mode? Perhaps. Was it off-balance? Could be. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what. So I turned it off and went back inside (I did try again later, and it worked okay; it’s a fun toy. Not worth $5,000, though.) In their quest to make the display “intuitive,” the Segway designers appear only to have succeeded in making the display useless.