We live in an age of mass production. Our cell phone that we bought last year doesn’t have the same features as the one available today. Our digital music player only holds half as much music as our friends. Our computer just doesn’t play that video game quite as smoothly as you’d like. The result is that our individual collection of gadgets has begun to look exactly the same as that of our friends. Manufacturers have begun to offer customizations such as coloured face plates and accessories. Norman questions whether this personalization is truly personal. “Are these customizations emotionally compelling? Not really. Yes cloths might fit better, and the furniture might better suit some needs, but neither guarantees emotional attachment” (Norman, p. 220).
There are however mass marketed products that have successfully appealed to the user on the reflective layer. These products extend the personalization far beyond simply selecting from a series of add-ons, and provide an opportunity for true personalization. One very successful example of this is the Ganz Webkinz. These collectible stuffed animals originally marketed towards children have become popular for both children and adults. They achieve this not by requiring the purchase of add-ons, although these are certainly available, but instead by providing a means for the owner to express themselves. Each Webkinz comes with a secret code that you can use to login to their very well designed web space. Upon entering the space you find yourself in a virtual world with the stuffed animal as an animated avatar. Each “pet” is given a room that you can decorate any way you like. Play money, earned through playing games, can be used to purchase furniture, decorations, appliances, games, and more for your pet’s room. As you purchase other pets, rooms are added for them in what becomes your virtual house. Most importantly you have the ability to visit shared spaces with other participants anywhere in the world. Communications are limited to predefined phrases ensuring anonymity and safety. “No, proper customization comes about through combining multiple simple pieces. Invariably, if something is so complex that it requires the addition of multiple “preferences” or customization choices, it is probably too complex to use, to complex to be saved. I don’t customize my pen; I do customize how I use it. I don’t customize my furniture; I do customize through my choice of which piece to buy in the first place, where I put it, when I use it, and how” (Norman, p. 222).
The magic and success of the Webkins phenomenon is a perfect example of both Human-tech and Emotional design. The soft and friendly looking pets appeal on the visceral level, as does the virtual environment these pets play in. At a behavioural level, the web space is designed for the use of young children. At the reflective level, the entire environment is built around emotional attachment. Users don’t just interact, they create. The Webkinz world becomes an extension of the user’s real world. As Vicente (p. 284) points out “high tech is not the same as Human-tech.” Interaction within Webkins World is so natural that one doesn’t tend to notice the massive database engine that must drive it.
Both Vicente and Norman note the importance of a holistic view of technology and would argue that engineering is simply about strong analytical and problem solving skills. They also need to be skilled in Human Tech. “They’re leaders. They want to learn about history, psychology, politics, sociology and other courses that don’t currently have a place in the rigid and overly prescriptive engineering curricula. These students – ones that we’re currently losing to other disciplines – would make outstanding engineers and precious leaders in society. They’re born Human-tech thinkers. Many of them are women”(Vicente, p. 304).