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Interface Obsession Syndrome - round two...

Date/Time Permalink: 07/04/08 06:58:23 am
Category: General

Follow on from The Six Kinds of Anti-FOSS Trolls, where I dropped a little bomb about interfaces, and followed up with Interface Obsession Syndrome.

Thank all of you who've been responding, and have kept your rebuttals in the 'discussion and debate' range, rather than getting hot about it. I of course don't expect everybody to see it my way. I've seen this before; I get ahead of my time and what I say today, others end up saying five years later. So, I'll just gently nudge us towards a few points I'd like to point out, helped along by your well-thought-out comments, and probably leave it at that for now.

"The king is wearing no cloths Troll" posted...

"Some FOSS projects are half-done and really need to be fixed (a geek might like em, but real users need it finished, so not to have to dig in and do command line this and that)."

I will never understand the stigma against command lines. Are there people out there who were beaten with keyboards when they were children? Even Don Norman, who started this whole screaming match about usable interfaces (cursed be his name), has nice things to say about command lines sometimes. If a program appeals only to geeks, it's probably because it was only meant for geeks, and there are usually other programs that do the same thing available for non-geeks.

"Wolf" posted...

"The katana's interface is *not* simply the hilt. It's the balance of the blade in regards to the hilt, it's the very slight curve in the blade, it's the blade length and the hilt length, the material used to cover the hilt, the material in the sheath, the precise placement of the guard, and on, and on.

These are not niggling details, they are literally matters of life and death.

This is contrary to your assertion that everyone's ideas are equally valid."

Deep breaths, Wolf, deep breaths. Seriously, life and death? We're not talking swords, we're talking software. But, like the panic over terrorism in the USA, I would ask you, "How many katanas have you seen with the hilt coming out the side of the blade? Actual katanas?" Right, none, because nobody who is a katana-maker is that stupid. Once again, to Don Norman. Take a good look at the cover of "The Design of Everyday Things".

Oh, how cute, a teapot with the spout and the handle on the same side. Now, how many actual, physical teapots have you seen in real life that are built this way? No, don't tell me about allegory or you think there's parallel examples in software or you knew somebody... If you think that there are real-life designers who are this bad, then you are projecting your hatred of (pick one) engineers, developers, software, computers, technology, and maybe even science, onto the people who work in these fields. So again, it's a people issue, not a computer issue.

Don Norman did for software what the movie "Reefer Madness" did for medical marijuana, and a parade of "usability experts" have followed suit.. I'm afraid you've all been lied to, you've carried your lies around for decades, some of you have built a career on the false beliefs that others have in those lies, and now some upstart blogger comes along and tells you the news twenty years too late. Of course, you're shocked and angry. Trust me, I have a sense of humor about it. Maybe I'll try again in a few years.

"Ed The Sane" posted...

"Every software interface I've ever encountered has usability problems. Every UI could use improvement."

And "Marvin" posted...

"The sad truth is that a lot of these issues also apply to interface design on consumer electronics. Dunno why those engineers have to mess up best practice though."

You are indeed sane, Ed, and there's no bugs on you, Marvin, but the idea that I'm putting forth is perfectly mirrored with these statements. Apply Occam's razor. Does it seem more likely that:

(a) Every engineer since the dawn of history doesn't deserve his or her degree, has made tragic mistakes in everything he or she has designed, and there is still some perfect model of the ultimate interface that exists somewhere in the universe, undiscovered by all of our experts despite years of study?


(b) Computers (and many other digital devices) have only been with most of us for about 20 years, and we humans haven't fully adapted to them yet?

Well, color me jumping to conclusions, but I'm inclined to think it's (b).

We are standing on our heads and complaining that the world is upside-down.

When some people come to a computer, they bring this baggage with them of preconceived notions about how it is supposed to work, and when those notions aren't met, they blame the computer. When what we call "computer geeks" come to a computer and find it different from how we expected it, we blame ourselves, and then change our ideas based upon our discovery so we can get some work done.

All computers do is use electric currents to simulate logic. Even though we built these things ourselves, they are bound by actual laws of physics, hence limited in what they can do. Nature did not 'look ahead' and set up some convenient laws of logic to allow us to do whatever we want. Instead, logic, like mathematics, is absolute. We just have to work with what we've got and adapt things to our purpose. There is no perfect way to get the computer to do the exact right thing for all cases of "do what I mean".

Oh, but look at me nattering on. Thank all of you for the great discussion, and I'm still reading your comments even if you don't see me respond. Just thought I'd throw this idea out there every now and then, just to see if the masses are ready for it yet.

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Update: For an example of the same idea expressed differently, turn to "Learning from 'bad' UI" at 37signals. A nice little parable is told about a user interface that is easy to criticize - until you think it over and then it makes sense. A quote:

"When we talk about 'usable' or 'intuitive' interfaces, Apple devotees and the web app crowd (myself included) tend to bias toward the first-time user."

...and in fact, the author is very gracious and filled with humility about admitting that the interface is worth a second thought. And look at the comments which flame him for it!

Update 7/17/08 For a scary example of the hellfire and damnation that awaits us all as we slide back from the Industrial Age to Cargo-Cult monkeys, see These things I believe at the blog which, apparently, is actually named "Not The User’s Fault".

Fine then, abandon society everyone! Quick, back to the caves! Last one to keep their opposable thumbs is a rotten egg! Just leave the lights on when you go - the rats or cockroaches might want to pick up where we left off.

Mind you, this retch-inducing screed is by somebody who just started working at Mozilla Labs three months ago. Mind you, what could be more under-designed than Mozilla Firefox? It has been the epitome of perfect user interface for three years now, and it has been so because they IGNORE the UI-Nazis. I give it three more months before he leaves Mozilla in a huff, flaming and fuming all the way out the door because they didn't bow down and worship his superior highness.

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