The Anti-Mac User Interface

I came across this 1996 paper that, as a thought experiment, took the principles of Macintosh user interface design and inverts them, just to see what would happen. For example, by accepting the Mac’s point-and-click interface, “it’s as if we have thrown away a million years of evolution, lost our facility with expressive language, and been reduced to pointing at objects in the immediate environment. Mouse buttons and modifier keys give us a vocabulary equivalent to a few different grunts.” They go on the show that metaphors can be crippling, direct manipulation can be tedious, consistency can be boring, and stability can be unhelpful. We expect our computers to stand still and not touch anything for fear of confusing us or breaking something, a relationship that paints the computer as an incompetent servant and the human as a weak-minded control freak.

What if your computer was actively helpful? What it it opened your mail every morning, and your webcomics only on MWF when they update? What if it cleaned off the 30 items on your desktop and put them into the right folders, and then changed the desktop picture to something it knows you like? This sort of user experience is extremely difficult to do well; it may even be AI-complete.

Nevertheless I feel that as computers become more prevalent and more capable our relationship with them needs to change. In 40 years nearly everyone will be a “digital native”, and this can be either a blessing or a curse. If we are locked into the interaction paradigms of our immigrant parents, we will be crippled by them forever. But we will reap benefits if we can raise a generation capable of enjoying lingual, contextualized, and diverse computing experiences.

What’s most interesting though is that the authors identify many of the user experiences seen today, more than a decade and a half later, on Linux (primarily) and Mac (ironically). Users encounter the desktop metaphor still, although with third-party apps creating some different experiences and branding. In the browser, the idea of contextualized locations is manifest, and it reflects reality. Different web pages look different because they are made by different people, much in the same way people have houses of different sizes, cleanliness, and decor. Far from having a single word processor interface, we deal with several on a daily basis, both in and out of the cloud. WordPress looks different from Gmail, which looks different from MS Word, which behaves very differently compared to vim. That’s okay, because they each have their own flavor and slightly different use case. Finally, the command line is resurgent, with new interest in programming, its tight integration with Linux, and the ubiquity of search bars. The command line is lingual, promoting automation and semantic meaning. Today’s user is presented with an arrangement of user interfaces, each tailored to a specific need, which in turn places requirements on the user. Or is it the other way around: our computers are “optimized for the category of users and data that we believe will be dominant in the future: people with extensive computer experience who want to manipulate huge numbers of complex information objects while being connected to a network shared by immense numbers of other users and computers.” Sounds like 2012 to me.

Operating in this diverse computing environment requires a large amount of cognitive work. We need to bring children through the evolution of language and thought quickly, teaching them to understand hierarchies, modularities, and contexts, the differences that characterize computing today. This will take time. The authors write that “it would not be unreasonable to expect a person to spend several years learning to communicate with computers, just as we now expect children to spend 20 years mastering their native language.” We should teach computers using computers. It’s time to use technology to strengthen and organize human thought. In order to do this, we need a new generation of educational technologies that not only do a better job teaching about math or history but also teach about thinking itself. Working a computer is a puzzle, and it can take years of practice. We need a way to simulate these nested challenges, and to promote the structured ways of thinking that solve them.

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