15 February 2011

Documentary highlights how Programma 101 put people first

Be the first to share
putting people first
by experientia

Programma 101
The upcoming documentary Programma 101 – Memory of the Future by Alessandro Bernard and Paolo Ceretto, celebrates Olivetti’s invention of the first personal desktop computer, back in 1965, and the wide implications it has had since.

Video reflections by Bruce Sterling, Massimo Banzi (of the Arduino), Mario Bellini and others are already online.

When Italian company Olivetti unveiled the Programma 101, it was more than just a technological revolution – it was a new way of thinking about people and computers. The compact, portable device revolutionised the idea of the computer, as well as how and where people really used them.

Instead of booking time on a monolithic machine guarded by experts, needing a whole room to house it, Programma 101 considered convenience, lifestyle and even aesthetics. Use it by the pool, or in the bath, convey the advertising images. It was perhaps the earliest example we have of user experience design in the computing field.

The 52 minute documentary recounting the story of this extraordinary machine and its makers will screen on Fox History Channel, Ur Sweden, SBS Australia, YLE Finland.

It describes the passage from a machine surrounded by men in “white coats”, where using it was as intimidating as being in a hospital, to a device that could be carried around wherever you were. The idea was so unbelievable at the time, that when it was first unveiled, skeptical viewers looked for the underground cable that must connect it to a larger computer.

“The Programma 101 is a real break in the history of computers,” comments American science-fiction author Bruce Sterling in a clip from the documentary. “You went from the mainframe to a thing on the desktop.”

A project that still resonates

For Experientia, the story has extra resonance, because not only is it an early example of thinking about the human side of human-computer interaction (putting people first, in other words!), but Experientia CEO Pierpaolo Perotto, is also the son of the Programma 101’s creator Pier Giorgio Perotto.

Recalling his father, Pierpaolo spoke about the three core elements – vision, planning and design – which helped his father and the small team of experts at Olivetti realise the Programma 101.

“They believed in a vision centred around people, and not around technology. My father was convinced that an electronic calculator could become a personal object. It was an act of courage. It was definitely completely counter-trend in terms of the culture surrounding technology in that moment in history. That vision characterised all the choices that followed.”

This vision was implemented by a grand level of planning, which involved both new and existing technologies. These technologies were aimed not just at creating an experimental prototype, but one that could above all be mass-produced, for an affordable price. In all, about 44,000 units were sold, for about $3,200 each.

The final element of success for the project was the integration between vision, design and technology.

“Having had the courage and the will to insist on a product design that was integrated with the vision and the technological choices made, they refused proposals that, although aesthetically interesting, would have constrained the innovative nature of the machine,” says Pierpaolo. “In that sense, it was my father who gave the job, against the wishes of his superiors, to a young designer at the start of a luminous career: Mario Bellini.”

The integration of these three elements – vision, planning and design – are also part of the way of thinking that eventually came to underpin Pierpaolo’s own work, particularly at Experientia, with its people-centred vision, and multi-disciplinary approach.

“I see these three elements as an instruction for anyone who wants to create a better future.”

A lifestyle machine

The Programma 101’s innovative approach is easily seen in its advertising: a businessman uses the calculating machine by the pool, while a woman in a bathing suit smiles at him after her swim; a woman taps away at the keypad from the comfort of a bubble-filled bath.

In a clip from the documentary, Bruce Sterling laughingly comments:

“In that advertisement you see a businessman sitting at the side of a pool, with a woman in a bathing suit, doing a little calculation. It’s a prophecy of the death of computers as something hidden away behind glass walls.”

While these images were no doubt slightly tongue-in-cheek, and seem charmingly quaint compared to the advertising images that surround us today, they are nevertheless the precursor of today’s computer as a personal assistant, and even a life partner. Pier Giorgio Perotto was able to envision a world where technology could exist in harmony with our lifestyles, which for the time was revolutionary.

Perhaps this vision comes through most clearly in the words of the father of personal computing himself. Commenting on the project later in life, Pier Giorgio Perotto said:

“I dreamed of a friendly machine, to which one could delegate all those operations that cause mental fatigue and errors; a machine that could learn, and calmly perform; that could store simple and intuitive data and instructions; that everyone could use; that cost little and fit with the dimensions of other office products that people were used to. I had to create a new language, which didn’t need interpreters in white coats.”

Perhaps this idea of a new language between people and computers, one that is simple and intuitive, and accessible to everyone, is the real inheritance of Programma 101. Pier Giorgio Perotto created a world in which you didn’t need to be an expert to operate a computer, and nearly fifty years on, his vision has been realised in ways that no one expected. In a world where technology is developing so rapidly, the challenge is to stay true to that vision, and make sure that new devices are designed with the vision of putting people first, and remembering that human-computer interaction should be designed above all for the humans.

Be the first to share
Related Article
1 March 2015
Italian bank offers user-friendly home security kit
The Smart Care unit of the insurance arm of the Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo has just launched an innovative home security offering. Branded "ACasaConMe" [AtHomeWithMe], the service combines a personalized insurance package and a security kit …
Related Article
28 February 2015
Open Policy Making: A people-centred approach to transform UK local services
Open Policy Making is about recognising that top down thinking and decision making no longer can deliver the range of services that people and communities have come to expect in a connected society, writes William …
Related Article
24 February 2015
5 imperatives of user experience design in mobile health technology
David Lee Scher, MD - Owner & Director, DLS Healthcare Consulting discusses what he thinks are five important issues in achieving the ideal mobile technology user experience, specifically for those technologies hoping to enter the …
Related Article
24 February 2015
“I’m divorcing my Nest thermostat”
Kara Pernice, the Managing Director at the Nielsen Norman Group, was a proud early adopter of the unique, cool, and pretty Nest device: "It helped me save energy, and communicated to me. But things went …
Related Article
20 February 2015
[White paper] Digital assurance: Reaching a seamless customer experience
Digital Assurance: Reaching a Seamless Customer Experience by Shawndra Hill (Wharton professor of operations and information management) and Kumudha Sridharan (vice president and global head of testing services at Wipro Technologies) White paper produced by Knowledge@Wharton and …
Related Article
31 January 2015
Internet psychologists study how the Web affects us
​In a pretty short period of time, the internet has changed how we take care of our basic needs, stand up for ourselves, and talk to each other. But psychologists are still debating how much …
Related Article
31 January 2015
The last-mile problem: How data science and behavioral science can work together
Analytics is typically discussed in terms of computer technology, machine learning algorithms, and big data. Behavioral nudges, on the other hand, concern human psychology. What do they have in common? Quite a bit, says James …
Related Article
31 January 2015
The startup “that helps companies fix their user experience problems”
Davey Alba explains in Wired how UserTesting runs an online panel of over 1 million testers—volunteers mostly—who can test products and other company materials on demand. : "The company has developed a way for businesses to …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

1 January 2015
Happy Playful New Year
21 December 2014
Experientia’s Twitter feed live

Experientia has now its own Twitter feed. Four months of Putting People First posts and other links have already been uploaded. If you followed Experientia on Twitter through the feed of its CEO, Mark Vanderbeeken, make sure to now also follow the company (but don’t unfollow Mark, who will keep on tweeting away). And while […]

19 December 2014
Putting People First blog redesigned

Experientia’s Putting People First blog has been redesigned. It is now entirely responsive, allows for easier browsing, searching, and filtering, and features larger images on the posts. The entire history of posts remains accessible as before. We are still tweaking things and welcome any feedback.

27 November 2014
Why the world needs anthropologists – an update

Why the world needs anthropologists – Coming out of the ivory tower Location: Padua, Italy, Centro Culturale Altinate/San Gaetano Date and time: Friday, 5 December 2014, 13:00 – 18:00 Padua, Italy, 5 December 2014 – The second edition of the international symposium of applied anthropologists attempts to erase the boundary between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology, […]

30 October 2014
The BancoSmart ATM by Experientia for UniCredit selected for ADI Design Index

Last year Experientia designed the interface of an ATM of UniCredit, a major Italian bank. The interface is now rolled out across the bank’s ATMs in Italy, to great satisfaction of the bank and the customers alike, since interaction speed is much faster and error rates went down dramatically. Last year UniCredit and Experientia also […]

29 October 2014
Experientia at EPIC: UX transforming a financial institution

In September 2014 Experientia gave a presentation on working as UX professionals with financial institutions at the EPIC conference in New York. The paper is now available on the EPIC site in HTML and PDF versions (free registration req’d). Abstract Application of a user-centered approach rooted in ethnographic methodologies facilitates a major European bank’s transition […]

See all articles