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Interface Obsession Syndrome

Date/Time Permalink: 07/01/08 06:33:34 pm
Category: General

Who has Interface Obsession Syndrome? The computing world, that's who. All of it: designers, users, open source software, proprietary software, web designers, web surfers. Everybody. It's a disease.

Last post, I boldly proclaimed (using my proclaiming voice, which makes the font bold and a size larger), "There is not a single thing wrong with a single FOSS program's user interface, anywhere, period." And I expected to get some reactions, and I did, and I'm ready to explain that line.

I'll tell you right now: you're going to disagree with me. This will be one more of those times when you all wonder if I've gone off my rocker, and I will have to explain it again and again, and then a few more readers each time will gradually pick up the idea, until I've reached all that I can reach. But what the hey, you probably needed the intellectual exercise anyway. Here goes nothing:

(1) Before there were computers, before there was technology, there was just humans and nature.

(2) Nature does not listen to humans complain about lousy interface design. It just says "here you go" and we have to put up with it. Imagine all the departments we humans have had to adapt to, without control over the interface: eating, elimination, sex, communication, and dealing with other animals. Sex alone has such a contrived interface, that half of us have to fumble around and even after years of practice we wonder if we have it right. Eating, unless we're talking about raw fruits and vegetables, requires cooking, something none of us are born knowing how to do. Our first acquaintance with a non-intuitive interface as children is being toilet-trained.

A quote:

"The only 'intuitive' interface is the nipple. After that it's all learned." - variously attributed

(3) Then we started making tools and advancing our technology. Making fire is another thing that is non-intuitive. Nature does not install "turn on fire" buttons in the world. We had to figure it out. Stone clubs and knives are limited by their nature - we cannot tweak the interface too much; it needs a handle. The interface to hand tools do not come with instructions and a drop-down 'help' menu. And so on and so forth up through the industrial age.

A quote:

"Those early carmakers were simply lucky, in that they could dream up whatever interface was best suited to the task of driving an automobile, and people would learn it." - Neal Stephenson

(4) Even after computers were invented, for a while yet we did not concern ourselves with the concept of an 'interface'. We used what we could get to work. Those of you who are older will remember those acoustic phone modems, with the two foam cups to set the receiver in, as pictured here from this source:

a very outdated modem

...and people learned it, too! People learned all kinds of things about computers before. It is quite a shock to see them learning less and less about these devices which are more and more important to them with each passing year.

(5) So, in our modern age we now have evolved computers just about as far any of us can see possible without artificial intelligence, and subsequently we have a new power: for the first time in history, we have nearly unlimited freedom in how to design the interface.

Also for the first time in history (the last ten years, in fact), we have a raging flame war over what's a good interface and what isn't. Don't think for a minute that this is just a FOSS problem. We FOSS users only see the trolls flinging mud at us, because we don't venture outside of our territory very often. Drop by a Microsoft, Adobe, and yes, even an Apple forum - and you will see just as much mud being flung at those companies for their interfaces as well.

(6) Here's the difficult part: what if our whole concept of ease-of-interface was an illusion? What if the interface was just a tree, but it was the one tree blocking our view of the forest? We fasten our noses to the interface, we rage on and on and on about what's intuitive - but there is no universal definition of an intuitive interface! What makes sense to you confuses the bejabbers out of me, and vice versa.

A quote:

"Not only do many babies need to learn to breast feed, but the human nipple is terribly unpredictable. If a baby suckles on a male nipple, nothing happens! Suck on a female nipple, and only then do you get results. A baby could become totally discouraged from the first attempt and stop suckling on nipples. It would arguably be insane to do anything else." - terryblog (emphasis and grammar correction mine).

(7) Let's sit back and take a look at how humans behave. Imagine that you're going to build a program, and you're brainstorming on a notepad. Are you going to write down "TODO: Make the interface as hard to use as possible."? No, of course not. You're going to honestly try to get it as practical as you can. Had you been around in the cave man days, you wouldn't have designed a stone club with a steering wheel and gear shift on it.

(8) In (6), we put forth the idea that everybody has a different opinion of what a good user interface is. In (7) we see that anybody would logically try to design the best possible interface - as they see it. Now, we have a logical conclusion: Anybody's guess as to how the interface is designed is just as good as anybody else's guess! Even the stone club with a steering wheel and gear shift would find a few users - hey, it gives you a secure, two-handed grip!

Bronto-Buster 9000

(9) Now, one more thing - maybe it's also an illusion that we are free to do anything with an interface design on a piece of software. I don't care how many IDEs you build, programming will always require typing text in a programming language. No matter how fantastic Image Magick gets, we'll still want to use a mouse and image screen to draw graphics. And I still haven't seen an operating system interface without the almighty menu. All of these different tasks require giving them orders in different ways.

So we see, after all, that just like the toilet and fire and the stone club and the car and the stove, we actually design the interface to match the task. All that's left are these trivial quibbles over petty details. A waste of time. If we, as a species, never had another meeting or debate about interface design again, we'd be better off. When we perfect artificial intelligence so we can talk to the computer like it was the HAL 9000, we'll all adapt to that interface. Just like we did with the telephone - the button pad was an improvement over the rotary dial - but we had to wait until button-pad technology was perfected! After we did that, everybody went to buttons. No more rotary plastic dial. You see? Every one of us picks the right interface decision to the best of both common knowledge and present available technology at the time of design.

Closing exercises for the reader:

[A] Here is a B-2 Stealth Bomber, as seen from the cockpit:

Stealth bomber

and here is a tricycle:


The interface on the Stealth Bomber appears to be many times less intuitive than the interface on the tricycle. Why do you think that is?

[B] Imagine that the keyboard hasn't been invented yet, and you have been tasked with its design on paper. Where will you put the keys? What purpose will all of the keys have? Now consider that our modern QWERTY keyboard layout is the most widespread around the world, and yet is based on considerations for the outdated manual typewriter. Given how important many people consider interface design to be, why hasn't the standard desktop computer keyboard layout ever changed? Why haven't new designs, such as DVORAK, seen wide adoption? Which is more intuitive, QUERTY or DVORAK?

[C] Consider all of the spoken human languages there are in the world. Which language is the most intuitive? Which one is the most intuitive one to read and write in?

[D] How many programming languages are there in the world? Can you think of any new ones coming up? Why do we need so many of them? Shouldn't we just pick the most intuitive one and use it for everything?

[E] With cosmetic surgery being all the rage, why don't men have their nipples removed?

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Continued in round two.

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