Software You Shouldn't Ever Notice

Humanized co-founder Aza Raskin is carrying on the design legacy of his father, a Macintosh pioneer

Aza Raskin wants your computer to disappear, but the 24-year-old is no latter-day Luddite. His goal is to make communication with the PC so intuitive you'll forget you're using a device. And Humanized—a software company and think tank he and a trio of fellow idealists founded in 2005—is the means to that end.

While they've yet to foment a computing revolution, Humanized did release two successful products during 2007, and their ideas have caught the attention of prominent designers and engineers at major tech companies, including Google (GOOG). Hundreds of thousands have downloaded Enso, a program that simplifies tasks such as defining words. And 6 million songs have been streamed on, a music search engine launched in November. Both embody Raskin's passion for software designed with people in mind.

Raskin views almost everything he handles in terms of its design. Mobile phones aren't just devices that make calls; they're "a Medusa's head of seething submenus." That mindset results from 21 years of Socratic tutelage by his late father, Jef Raskin, the Renaissance man who came up with the idea for Apple's (AAPL) Macintosh and led much of its development. The oldest of three children, Aza gave his first technical talk as a middle schooler and consulted internationally with his father as a teen. When Jef was diagnosed with cancer in late 2004, Aza left the University of Chicago to work side by side with him in Pacifica, Calif. Shortly after his father died at age 61 a few months later, Aza returned to Chicago, completing four months' worth of research for his senior physics thesis on dark matter in just weeks. "When he came back, I gave him zero chance of success, but Aza is Aza," says astrophysics professor Juan Collar.

Raskin and three college friends then founded Humanized, raising money from investors they "knew through our personal circles" and supplementing their income with design and software consulting gigs. They've since tapped angel financiers two more times for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Programmer Flaws

Humanized's eight philosophical precepts, which Vice-President Atul Varma wrote as a sort of manifesto, might seem like common sense to the average PC owner. The first rule, for example, is, "It's not your fault." In other words, if a user has trouble getting a program to perform an action, it's because software writers failed to anticipate users' thoughts and assumptions. But not all coders see things that way. "Programmers often think: 'This is how it works. If you're not good enough to understand that, go read the manual, don't bother me,'" Raskin says.

The Humanized quartet, who work out of a Ravenswood office, know software, but maybe not business. "They've collected some brilliant folks," says Donald A. Norman, an Enso fan who co-directs Northwestern University's dual-degree program in management and engineering. But he adds: "I don't see how they'll sustain themselves as a business." Raskin declines to quote Humanized's revenue numbers, saying only that they're making "enough."

If Raskin were running just a think tank, it's unlikely so many would follow his opinions on topics like pie menus, the flower-shaped navigational tools that form the basis of Songza's design. "It's not like they're doing this in the lab," says David Malouf, a Motorola (MOT) designer and vice-president of the Interaction Design Assn. "They're trying to do this in a real-world setting."

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