The Trouble with Computers

The Trouble with Computers

Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity

By Thomas K. Landauer

A Bradford Book





Despite enormous investments in computers over the last twenty years, productivity in the very service industries at which they were aimed virtually stagnated everywhere in the world.

If computers are not making businesses, organizations, or countries more productive, then why are we spending so much time and money on them? Cutting through a raft of technical data, Thomas Landauer explains and illustrates why computers are in trouble and why massive outlays for computing since 1973 have not resulted in comparable productivity payoffs. Citing some of his own successful research programs, as well as many others, Landauer offers solutions to the problems he describes.

While acknowledging that mismanagement, organizational barriers, learning curves, and hardware and software incompatibilities can play a part in the productivity paradox, Landauer targets individual utility and usability as the main culprits. He marshals overwhelming evidence that computers rarely improve the efficiency of the information work they are designed for because they are too hard to use and do too little that is sufficiently useful. Their many features, designed to make them more marketable, merely increase cost and complexity. Landauer proposes that emerging techniques for user-centered development can turn the situation around. Through task analysis, iterative design, trial use, and evaluation, computer systems can be made into powerful tools for the service economy.

Landauer estimates that the application of these methods would make computers have the same enormous impact on productivity and standard of living that were the historical results of technological advances in energy use (the steam engine, electric motors), automation in textiles and other manufacture, and in agriculture. He presents solid evidence for this claim, and for a huge benefit-to-cost ratio for user-centered design activities backed by descriptions of how to do these necessary things, of promising applications for better computer software designs in business, and of the relation of user-centered design to business process reengineering, quality, and management.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262121866 440 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262621083 440 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • At last a serious effort to debunk the hype of the Information Age. Landauer takes you into the inner sanctum of the computer paradox, posing questions and offering remedies that could well hold the key to the American standard of living in the 21st century.

    Stephen Roach

    Co-director of Global Economic Analysis, Morgan Stanley & Co.

  • This book demonstrates why today's computers are wrong for society, wrong for business, wrong for people—it should strike terror in the heart of the computer industry. We will be well served if the terror leads to change—the revolution of User Centered Design championed by Landauer. If the leaders of the computer industry read this seriously, maybe they can make the book obsolete. Maybe: don't count on it.

    Donald A. Norman

    Apple Fellow, Apple computer Inc., Professor Emeritus, University of California, author of Things that make us smart.

  • Landauer makes a compelling case that we are getting less productivity pay-off from computers than one would expect from the level of investment and from comparisons to previous applications of technology to industrial processes. He uses an informal style with many examples to make sophisticated arguments about why computers haven't helped more. The writing is clear and the reading enjoyable.

    Robert Kraut

    Professor of Social Psychology and Human Computer Interaction, Carnegie Mellon University

  • Tom Landauer does the most careful, original, and synthetic research of anyone in our field. This is an exciting book, carefuly constructed and of great national importance. The field has had trouble making the business case for doing User Centered Design; they use as arguments local cost savings. This book breaks the wall of local benefit and gets us to think of national significance.

    Judy Olson

    Professor of Computer and Information Systems and Professor of Psychology, The University of Michigan

  • Everyone who has ever stood in line as a clerk [and] fussed over a finicky, computerized check-out machine, or wondered why computers seem tocomplicate life instead of simplifying it, will appreciate Landauer'scleanly argued and thoroughly readable book.

    Elizabeth Corcoran

    Washington Post


  • Winner, 1995, category of Computer Science, Professional/Scholarly Publishing Annual Awards Competition presented by the Association of American Publishers, Inc.