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August, 2005

Why Interfaces Matter (Part One)

How will interfaces evolve in five years? "When Johnson [in Interface Culture talks about "the unlikely secondary effects of new machines rippling out to transform the society that surrounds them" -- what sort of "new machines" do you think we'll start to see? Why are they an "art form"?"

These were the questions posed by Richard McManus in the comments of my "Art in the Interface entry. Well, well, well, nice to see someone calling me out on talking a little too much theory and not enough practice (although looking into the future is a fairly theoretical affair in itself). From Richard and company's comments, I'm getting the feeling that I've begun to go off the deep end a little too far. Is it really true that I'm not writing in words that make sense to everyone?

Let me take a step back and, as Richard asked for, give "a more down-to-earth explanation to the ones in Johnson's book." The irony here, of course, is that I found Johnson's book a far more down-to-earth explanation than I had ever read before. Guess it's time to take that a step further. So I'm going to attempt to start at the beginning and work towards Richard's question. This is the first part of the series.

Why You Should Care

Command line purists love it because there's nothing standing in between them and their computer. They type in just what they want to do and the computer executes it, no silly windows to close or icons to click. However, for the rest of us, who aren't so interested in learning a new language just so we can write a Word document and get online, visual interfaces are the answer. These interfaces (our operating system's desktop is a good example) allow us to use our computer without having to type in every command. When we want to close a program we just hit the little close button, no need to type in a string of letters and words to stop working on something.

Of course, the downside to all this is that there's something standing in-between us and the power of our computer. This is really only a downside in theory, however, because without that mediation 99 percent of us wouldn't be able to tap into the power of the computer at all.

It's the interface that gets us there. It allows us to drive the computer. Imagine trying to steer a car without a wheel. If you had to twist just a shaft back and forth every time you wanted to make a turn it might get pretty annoying pretty quickly. The wheel is the interface between you and the steering mechanism. Yeah, calling it an interface may be a bit convoluted, but it's fairly accurate. The whole mechanism is fairly simple, really, it's a basic, physical, cause and effect: You turn the wheel and the car turns in the direction you've chosen. While your wheel turning is being helped along by power steering, the interaction is fairly direct. Your motion is actually causing a physical response.

Now, take the whole thing digital. All of a sudden things aren't so cut and dry. When you move a mouse, you're physical motion is being translated into a virtual motion. What's really happening is that the mouse is charting your movements and telling the screen to redraw it's position accordingly. It's translating a physical motion into a virtual one.

Really, that's the story with all things digital. They're not "really" there. When you're typing on your computer, the letters you see are actually just pixels arranged in a certain order to create a letter resembling the one you typed. This isn't a typewriter where every key pressed creates a physical representation in ink on paper. Erase a word on your computer screen and you're really just telling the computer to get rid of those arrangements of pixels you told it to display a few seconds ago. It doesn't know they're words and, frankly, it doesn't care. It speaks one language (computer code) and you speak/understand another (presumably English/visual communications). The interface bridges the gap between the two.

That's why it's so important, without most of us would have a lot of trouble getting our computer to do anything. But it's also bigger than that. After all, looking at an operating system for example, it needs to communicate to users a vast realm of possibilities using mostly visual metaphors with a small bit of text. Interface designers are faced with the near impossible task of making users understand the incredible spectrum of operations your computer is capable of.

While many of these metaphors seem like a part of life today, at one time they were not. Someone had to come up with the 'trash can' as a place to put documents you no longer wanted. They also had to decide 'folders' were a good metaphor for a place to store digital files. We're used to this stuff now, but someone, at some point, made the decision to use a desktop as a metaphor for our computer and whether we're aware of it or not, it's had a huge impact on how we all understand computers.

Just think about the desktop metaphor for one second. Is it any wonder that people had trouble imagine the computer as anything more than a glorified typewriter? After all, everyone understood their desk. They had papers on it they could organize into folders and the only other things they need was some way to create those documents. The desktop metaphor, then, clearly sets forth document creation as its central tenet. Interface designers were translating visually what they felt was the most important application for your computer. They were telling users a story about just what a computer could do.

This is what Steven Johnson means when he writes the following in Interface Culture:

Organic, low-tech metaphors once belonged to those lagging behind the machinic power curve, the Luddites and the antediluvians, the poets and the novelists, the ones reaching for older analogies because the shock of the new had so overwhelmed them. In today's society, the task of translation has migrated to the technicians. In the age of the graphic interface, with its visual metaphors of trash cans and desktop folders, imaginative flashbacks have become programming feats, conjured up by high-tech wizards hacking away in assembly language.
In the old days, it was writers who translated our complex world for us. They helped us understand culture by using common metaphors we could easily comprehend. Today, though, the most important task of explanations belong to interface designers. That's because we have this incredibly powerful tool in front of us (the computer) and there are very few of us who know how to actually unlock it's potential. Without them, we'd all be left with the task of learning an entirely new language just to use this tool and at that point, it seems like the work required may outweigh the benefit received.
August 8, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.