Interfacing as humanly as possible
January 24, 2008 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm not a computer programmer, but I love the thought and artistry that go into [computer] application design.

Just browsing through Apple's latest HIG (Human Interface Guidelines) leaves me awestruck as to how much experience has been amassed and is used in order to design and execute a streamlined operating system. Abstract concepts like metaphors, user's mental model, perceived stability, and modelessness are transparently integrated into our everyday actions. It is often the little things which make all the difference. And sometimes the simplest actions we perform seem really complex when explained. Who knew there were this many buttons?
On a related note: David Pogue at TED sings and talks about human interface inconsistency. Finally, I hope Apple will take to heart many of John Siracusa's thoughts regarding improvements to OS X. The inconsistent Finder and the horrid behavior of the Dock, to name only two... I love my Mac.
posted by lonemantis (54 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not a pharmacist either...
posted by blue_beetle at 7:31 PM on January 24, 2008


I'm not a licensed pharmacist...
posted by pompomtom at 7:36 PM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I almost forgot, I intended to place a couple of Jef Raskin links as well.
posted by lonemantis at 7:37 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


the best thing I've seen of Raskin's was the flash demo of a zoomable interface. I can't post it now because I'm on my iPhone, but it inspired me to go back to school for interface design.
posted by Brainy at 7:42 PM on January 24, 2008


Whoa, there's more to the world than just apple

KDE interface guidelines

Gnome


Vista
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:45 PM on January 24, 2008


I am a computer programmer, and I hate that thought and artistry so rarely go into [computer] application design.

I do love me some ZUI, though. One could do worse than listen to this Google talk by Jef's son Aza Raskin.
posted by enn at 7:46 PM on January 24, 2008


Heh. If you love good interface design you'd hate almost anything "designed" by a programmer.
posted by Artw at 7:53 PM on January 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


There are a lot of programmers at Apple who would do well to follow the guidelines their own company publishes. The brushed-metal phase is a perfect example of this. Fortunately, it was fixable mostly by a radio button in the developer tools in 10.4, (or UNO, a godsend) and now it's finally on the scrap-heap where it belongs, but that's the tip of the iceberg. I've been humbugged by trying to either find my files that Apple doesn't think I should have access to (iPhoto, iMovie) or figuring out how to undo edits, or simply compare & contrast them (early versions of Aperture) or merely re-size a window (Garage Band, System Preferences).

And if I can have a list view in open/save dialogs, why can't I have the same set of criteria I have in other finder windows, and why doesn't one remember the one critera I have sorted by, the next time I access it? Hello?

I mean, I'm glad I don't have to use Vista or XP, but if you're going to lead, then lead by example, please.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:02 PM on January 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


Cute swipe, artw.

I assume you're in favor of "designers" shunning HTML forms, Swing, Windows/GTK/whatever widgets in favor of some formless Flash mess that breaks accessibility, slows usefulness, and acts differently in every app?

But boy is it sure shiny.

Agree with everyone else here who's pointed out that
Well-designed interfaces ≠ Apple products
posted by vsync at 8:23 PM on January 24, 2008


Looking at Apple and concluding that artistry goes into software design is like looking at a WWII fighter plane and concluding that the best artists build weapons systems.

Macs are nice, but they are the exception. Not the rule.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:24 PM on January 24, 2008


Apple literally wrote the book(s) on this subject. I'll never forget the feeling of revelation I had when I saw the first Mac in January of 1984 running the two whole apps written for it at that time: MacPaint and MacWrite and that **mouse**. You didn't have to read a manual to figure out how to make 90% of the program work. "Intuitive" was not a word associated with computers at that time. Without cracking a set of instructions, taking that mouse, selecting a tool, and drawing a rectangle filled with a bricks pattern? SIMPLY AMAZING.
posted by spock at 8:28 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Heh... I was on a GUI binge on Wikipedia a few weeks ago, browsing the articles they had on all the elements of the modern desktop environment. All the niggling bits like radio buttons and status bars and the Start button, which have a universe of thinking and terminology and experimentation behind them that nobody knows about. It's all invisible stuff we use all the time and take for granted, but interesting to discover the reasoning behind them -- the difference between a standard progress bar and an intermediate progress bar, say, or why the phrase "OK" was selected over "Do It" in the early days of development (it looked too much like "dolt", and angered users!). Or what the hell that Apple curlicue thing is. See here and here for more.

Also, out of idle curiosity, are there any alternatives to the desktop metaphor? It's been so ingrained in UI design for so long, it seems like there's no other way to go about it sometimes.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:39 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


spock : Apple literally wrote the book(s) on this subject.

Apple wrote the book on Macintosh design guidelines? That is somewhat of an underwhelming revelation.

I feel compelled to mention that the things you're lauding in the first Mac there weren't invented by Apple but by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
posted by XMLicious at 8:42 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]




What XMLicious said. They were refiners rather than innovators.
posted by Artw at 8:52 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Rhaomi

In your last link, there's a link to the Tiling window manager, which uses a somewhat similar, but different metaphor. It's been used before for Windows, and is used by certain modern alternate window managers, like wmii.
posted by leviathan3k at 8:55 PM on January 24, 2008


This thread reminded me of the text entry tool dasher which I read about on Metafilter and find is now available as more then a web demo ( a complete SIP for all major OS's

Sorry for not contributing to the raging Apple debate, does anyone else find it hard to care about sticking up for or dissing yet another company that makes over-priced, well designed consumer-grade goods? Why is it always some holy war on message boards? I don't read "well BMW invented cruise control" "did not!" "did too" very often . . .
posted by oblio_one at 9:05 PM on January 24, 2008


Whether or not Apple "wrote the book" on HIG has little to do with their succeeding in one very important way, on this point :
Encourage people to explore your application by building in forgiveness—that is, making most actions easily reversible. People need to feel that they can try things without damaging the system or jeopardizing their data. Create safety nets, such as the Undo and Revert to Saved commands, so that people will feel comfortable learning and using your product.

Warn users when they initiate a task that will cause irreversible loss of data. If alerts appear frequently, however, it may mean that the product has some design flaws. When options are presented clearly and feedback is timely, using an application should be relatively error-free.
As an x-mas bonus, I received a 17" MBP to replace my 16-month-old 15" MBP. Not a big deal for me, but it enabled me to give The Woman her very own laptop. She'd been lusting after one for awhile now, and it's time she had a system that wasn't built from scrap parts and fell apart in a matter of weeks, requiring uber-nerds to fix up for her.

Though it's only been about a month and a half, I constantly have to remind her that "clicking the OK button won't delete your system", as she's pretty gunshy about using computers due to the MS side of things. Each system has its merits, but I think MS has this keen ability to scare the shit out of their users with antiquated dialog boxes and irreversible system actions.

So, at least in that sense, I think Apple has an upper hand here. I just wish people were less afraid of their computers, and less afraid to learn about "what's this button do?" - if Apple (or, really, any software company) can help to change that, I say good on them.
posted by revmitcz at 9:14 PM on January 24, 2008


I feel compelled to mention that the things you're lauding in the first Mac there weren't invented by Apple but by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Douglas Engelbart

FTFY.

And by the way, I'm about as far from an apple Fanboy as you can get, but I'm pretty sure the PARC stuff wasn't quite as smooth in terms of UI as the first MacOS. At the same time, though, it's something that was built over a long time by a lot of people. Apple was the first company to successfully commercialize the research though.
posted by delmoi at 9:35 PM on January 24, 2008


I assume you're in favor of "designers" shunning HTML forms, Swing, Windows/GTK/whatever widgets in favor of some formless Flash mess that breaks accessibility, slows usefulness, and acts differently in every app?

Vsync, I think you missed the point of artw's technology-agnostic comment. Most programmers, as a whole, write terrible interfaces regardless of which UI they're using. This is because they're not terribly concerned about the average user experience and also because they know exactly what to expect from the program because hey, they wrote it.

Compare Notepad's Ctrl-F search against Firefox's. Same technology, vast difference in usability. There's a lot more to "design" than flash ridden photoshop wankery.
posted by reishus at 9:37 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Compare Notepad's Ctrl-F search against Firefox's. Same technology, vast difference in usability.

And throw Textpad's F5 search into the mix too. I've spent waaaaaay too much time thinking about this specific issue.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:51 PM on January 24, 2008


> I feel compelled to mention that the things you're lauding in the first Mac there
> weren't invented by Apple but by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
> Douglas Engelbart Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

FTFY.


FTFY. He did the mouse while he was working at PARC, had influence on GUI development, but not WYSIWYG text editing or the MacPaint-type drawing UI.

And by the way, I'm about as far from an apple Fanboy as you can get, but I'm pretty sure the PARC stuff wasn't quite as smooth in terms of UI as the first MacOS.

I remember using a Mac 128 and it was nifty and all but not noticeably smoother than anything else. Especially without an off switch for when it crashed, you had to unplug the damn things.

I'm not saying that Apple doesn't deserve kudos for some innovation but much of their innovation effort has gone into their marketing to paint them as innovative. They certainly didn't write the book on application design.
posted by XMLicious at 10:03 PM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


How about those semi-transparent overlay palettes that Apple loves now? Does anyone find those to be a useful improvement at all?
posted by smackfu at 10:18 PM on January 24, 2008


Holy cow, Speech-Dasher is cool.
posted by eritain at 10:41 PM on January 24, 2008


vsync - what reishus said. Being a good programmer and being a good UI designer are two completly different skillsets, and people who have both are very rare. Even worse theres far too many programmers who don't even have an awareness that UI design is a skillset, let alone have those skills themselves. The stuff they build will be complex and hard to use regardless of if it's Flash, HTML forms, Swing or whatever, and in a way the best you cna hope for is they do as little as possible becuase when they get fancy with the uI is when the real ideosyncratic weirdness come out.

And this is, of course, a whole other distinct area from visual design, though the two overlap.
posted by Artw at 11:17 PM on January 24, 2008


delmoi wrote: And by the way, I'm about as far from an apple Fanboy as you can get, but I'm pretty sure the PARC stuff wasn't quite as smooth in terms of UI as the first MacOS.

To which, XMLicious replied: I remember using a Mac 128 and it was nifty and all but not noticeably smoother than anything else.

Here's some excerpts from an article by someone who was actually involved, Bruce Horn:
For more than a decade now, I've listened to the debate about where the Macintosh user interface came from. Most people assume it came directly from Xerox, after Steve Jobs went to visit Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). This "fact" is reported over and over, by people who don't know better (and also by people who should!). Unfortunately, it just isn't true – there are some similarities between the Apple interface and the various interfaces on Xerox systems, but the differences are substantial. . . .

Smalltalk has no Finder, and no need for one, really. Drag-and-drop file manipulation came from the Mac group, along with many other unique concepts: resources and dual-fork files for storing layout and international information apart from code; definition procedures; drag-and-drop system extension and configuration; types and creators for files; direct manipulation editing of document, disk, and application names; redundant typed data for the clipboard; multiple views of the file system; desk accessories; and control panels, among others. The Lisa group invented some fundamental concepts as well: pull down menus, the imaging and windowing models based on QuickDraw, the clipboard, and cleanly internationalizable software.

. . . Smalltalk didn't even have self-repairing windows [emphasis mine] – you had to click in them to get them to repaint, and programs couldn't draw into partially obscured windows. Bill Atkinson did not know this, so he invented regions as the basis of QuickDraw and the Window Manager so that he could quickly draw in covered windows and repaint portions of windows brought to the front.
Especially without an off switch for when it crashed, you had to unplug the damn things.

Oh, unless you actually knew about the interrupt and reset switches.

They certainly didn't write the book on application design.

As has been pointed out to you, in the 80s, they did – and it had far more influence than you are apparently aware.
posted by D.C. at 1:41 AM on January 25, 2008


Heh. I'd forgotten about mucking about with a paperclip to reset macs. Happy days...
posted by Artw at 2:02 AM on January 25, 2008


I'd forgotten about mucking about with a paperclip to reset macs.

Yeah, but XMLicious was talking about the 128k Mac, which had Interrupt and Reset on the side. The first generation, slot-loading iMac (1998–early-1999) hid these switches behind paperclip holes, but the later CRT-based iMacs brought back real buttons. All other 80s–90s desktop Macs included real buttons or used the keyboard.

On re-reading the previous post, I'll add that there was no reason to pull the plug when there was a big power rocker-switch on the back.
posted by D.C. at 3:31 AM on January 25, 2008


How about those semi-transparent overlay palettes that Apple loves now? Does anyone find those to be a useful improvement at all?

Not me in particular. They don't appear in any UIG that I've read (not like I've read them all -- IANAD) and don't perform any function other than to look good. While looking good in itself isn't a bad thing, the problem is they look different from the rest of the UI, and take some figuring-out-time, so for me, they've been counter-productive. And why should we have the semi-transparent grey overlay in iPhoto, but a drawer (they dump the drawer in every other app, then add it to Garage Band--WTF?) for essentially the same functions in GB?

Still, zero viruses in 5 years, and stability out the wazoo. I'm good with all that part.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:07 AM on January 25, 2008


Discussions like this always remind me of Brian Eno's take on computers: they don't have enough "Africa" in them. If you look at the popularity of the Wii, maybe Eno was on to something there.
posted by digitalprimate at 7:02 AM on January 25, 2008


Perhaps this is the place where I can ask a question that others (windows users) have asked me (an osx user), usually as their first point of consternation:

Why are the min/max/close buttons on the top left for OSX and top right for Windows?

yes, i know they aren't the same buttons on a mac as on a pc, but you know what I mean
posted by furtive at 7:12 AM on January 25, 2008


Pshhht...! Everybody knows the Commodore Amiga kicks the shit outta the Mac.
posted by LordSludge at 7:20 AM on January 25, 2008


Why are the min/max/close buttons on the top left for OSX and top right for Windows?

The only possible answer would be differentiation. "They put theirs here, so we should put ours there." No idea of who put which where first, but it really makes no difference, so ling as it's consistent across the platform you use. (Are you listening Adobe? No? I didn't think so)
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:47 AM on January 25, 2008


*long*. Apparently, spellcheck thinks "ling" is a word.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:48 AM on January 25, 2008


They don't appear in any UIG that I've read (not like I've read them all -- IANAD) and don't perform any function other than to look good.

Actually, the reason it was on my mind was that it's in the new Apple HIG: Transparent Pane. They try to justify it, but the transparent part still seems like a bad idea to me. It adds visual clutter in the backgrounds of the panel with no gain.
posted by smackfu at 8:07 AM on January 25, 2008


Perhaps this is the place where I can ask a question that others (windows users) have asked me (an osx user), usually as their first point of consternation:

Another one, my usual first complaint about the Mac OS: why can't you resize a window from any corner?
posted by mrgrimm at 8:24 AM on January 25, 2008


They try to justify it, but the transparent part still seems like a bad idea to me. It adds visual clutter in the backgrounds of the panel with no gain.

Actually, I think the transparent panel is a great idea. It clearly differentiates a dialog from a window, and is a great visual metaphor for the transient nature of the dialog.

The window buttons are IMO the biggest misstep in OS X. I use the close button in multi-window apps, but apart from that I never touch them except by accident. It's too bad that's one aspect of the system with too much inertia to change.
posted by bjrubble at 8:25 AM on January 25, 2008


Thanks mrgrimm -- the window buttons are the biggest mistake except for the resizing issue.

In fact, the whole window frame is kind of a disaster. They keep iterating on it (Aqua, brushed metal, smooth metal) but never really fix it.
posted by bjrubble at 8:28 AM on January 25, 2008


Why are the min/max/close buttons on the top left for OSX and top right for Windows?

In the Mac OS, the menu commands (file, edit, etc) are on a 'global' menu at the top of the screen. this menu doesn't move. The window manipulation buttons (close, minimize, et al) are then at the top left of the window -- because, well, we read left to right.

In Windows however, the menu commands are attached</em to the window you're working with...so if you didn't place the window close button on the far right, it would be right there next to the file menu, so you'd accidentally close the window when trying to click "file" and accidentally open the "file" menu when trying to click the "x".

There's a principal in UI design where you try to physically separate potentially destructive action triggers from constructive actions....so, you typically see "ok" separated from "cancel" in dialog boxes.

(as to why the close button is right next to the minimize button...I have no idea. That's pretty stupid.)

posted by device55 at 8:31 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


(I know about menus but apparently don't know how to close an HTML tag. I'll be hanging my head in shame over there in the corner if you need me.)
posted by device55 at 8:35 AM on January 25, 2008


I could have sworn it was a beige box one where I had to do that. Of course, there's the whole disk-ejection-by-paperclip thing as well, its possible that has me confused.
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on January 25, 2008


GUI Timeline
posted by Artw at 9:08 AM on January 25, 2008


1985 has some happy memories for me - Workbench on the Amiga! It's also the first MS Windows - oh dear, that's pretty far behind, so far behind in fact that the GUI they somehow got the Commodore 64 to run actually looks better than it.
posted by Artw at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2008


Hmmm... it wasn't until Aqua in 2000 that Apple moved the close/min/max to the left.
posted by furtive at 9:18 AM on January 25, 2008


Looking at Apple and concluding that artistry goes into software design is like looking at a WWII fighter plane and concluding that the best artists build weapons systems.

This just doesn't make any sense. It might have been coincidence that creating a fast, aerodynamic, piston engine aircraft was also creating a thing of beauty in the same way we find a particular bird or flower beautiful. They are beautiful for reasons other than their intent. Or, In other words, we find lean, optimal physical forms beautiful - and that is what inspires good design. And that doesn't mean these airplane designers aren't great, or even the best artists.

I'm not a mac user, but I do appreciate how strict they are with GUI design in terms of making things, simple, clear and especially, consistent. And, I'm not getting into some stupid "take any chance you can get to take a swipe at the operating system you don't like" flamewar (why does everyone take so much pleasure in this?) Instead I will mention the simple things I do enjoy.

- If you like fast, simple file managers, take a look at Gnome's Nautilus, and XFCE's Thunar. Instead of having a file path written at the top of the screen, a new button in a line of buttons for each directory that the user has crossed into, so a user can back up to any previous directory with a single click. I find this much faster than the standard webbrowser style file management. Nautilus Example. Apple's Finder has its multicolumns, and Vista has a similar list, but it cannot be traversed with a single click, and there is no easy way to get to the root directory.

- Macintosh used to have the ability to "shade" your windows (collapse the window so that all that is visible is the titlebar) but no longer. Nearly all XWindows Window Managers (Gnome's Metacity and KDE, and XFCE, and more) allow this. I personally really like this feature because windows can be removed from view, almost entirely, but their positions on screen are preserved instead of being minimized to a sequential, less spatial list like a taskbar or Apple's Panel. For me, it takes less time for me to remember where a window was rather than what icon it is associated with or what it is called.

- I don't know if the other OSes have a similar product (I think Apple's Core Animation and various other frameworks might be), but the Windows Presentation Foundation is a set of tools and a framework for designers to develop user interfaces that are DPI independent, meaning that they can be resized to any size and preserve proportionality as well as clarity and increase contrast and resolution with display resolution. This allows transitions to more fluid, less sequential, 3D interfaces.
posted by hellslinger at 9:23 AM on January 25, 2008


I do kind of miss the old mac OS look, pre mac OS-X. I guess I'm kind of retro or possibly a luddite. That thing at the bottom of the screen just seems reather show-offy and not particularly practical.
posted by Artw at 9:35 AM on January 25, 2008


reishus: Most programmers, as a whole, write terrible interfaces regardless of which UI they're using. This is because they're not terribly concerned about the average user experience and also because they know exactly what to expect from the program because hey, they wrote it.

That is such horseshit. I grant that not every programmer is also a usability wonk. But programming is too broad a field, and the above generalization is incorrect enough that it can't be allowed to stand without a challenge.

First, some programmers work on software without interfaces, or they work only on interior parts of larger programs, so we can excuse them from further examination, right? And there's also UI programmers whose sole task is to design and build UI's; surely they're "concerned about the average user experience" and don't deserve that smear, do they?

If we're going to generalize. just about any programmer working in anything larger than a 3-person company is usually programming to someone else's specifications. It's my experience that, rightly or wrongly, the majority of this input is focussed on the UI. In fact many such projects start as a doodle of a hypothetical GUI made by someone in marketing or sales. So if you hate a software UI, you're probably hating on the brainchild of marketing or sales, not the programmer.

Moving on, designing perfect UI's is HARD. First, software is still a young field, and the UI standards are still being hammered out. Many companies now employ Information Architects and usability experts to design UIs, yet you're still complaining about them. So, if hiring the experts was the answer, then either it's a harder job than you think, or you're simply an ungrateful, picky lot. I'm thinking the latter ... ;^)

It's my experience that really great GUI breakthrough's, and especially the subtle, simple interfaces that are nearly invisible yet efficient, are works of genius, akin to art, and so far we haven't been able to train bright people to consistently produce brilliant UIs, any more than you can take any dexterous person and train them to be a Michelangelo.

Finally, on a personal note, this programmer does give a rat's ass about the average user's experience, they're my customers, and their only point of contact with my work is usually a GUI. I believe most good programmers also feel this way. But when a marketing manager who doodles on placemats thinks he's a better GUI/usability designer than me, there's not alot I can do about it.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:43 AM on January 25, 2008


For what it's worth, I'm sure theres some excellent UI designers out there who can't program worth a damn.
posted by Artw at 10:54 AM on January 25, 2008


> They certainly didn't write the book on application design.

As has been pointed out to you, in the 80s, they did – and it had far more influence than you are apparently aware.


I am a software engineer and I have a fair amount of experience and university coursework in UI design and usability testing and I am not aware of Apple being a special authority in this area.

And whether or not you want to admit it their marketing is quite focussed on characterizing them as radical and innovative independent of actual accomplishments. As I said, I certainly grant them authorship of some innovation, I'm just not willing to put them on the pedestal others in this thread have.
posted by XMLicious at 2:25 PM on January 25, 2008


But when a marketing manager who doodles on placemats thinks he's a better GUI/usability designer than me, there's not alot I can do about it.

Quoted for truth. It's hard enough when hashing out requirements to keep the non-tech people from saying "I think the database tables need to look like this" and handle it smoothly when they inevitably do exactly that. Trying to convince them that the interface they're asking for is likely not the most useful or elegant option is very much a steeper hill to climb. And it's as true of simple menu-driven green screen apps as it is of fancy portal or desktop GUI apps.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:32 PM on January 25, 2008


GUI Timeline

Good link, Artw. GEM Desktop, now that brings back memories. Digital Equipment Corp, we hardly knew ye. I never knew Apple had sued them too.

And this is kind of interesting - under Windows 1.0:

Windows are not allowed to cover an area at the bottom of the screen that is reserved for "iconized" programs.

I didn't realize the taskbar concept went that far back, because they pulled it out of 2.x and 3.x and didn't bring it back until 95, didn't they?
posted by XMLicious at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2008


Digital Research != DEC
posted by b1tr0t at 8:12 PM on January 25, 2008


Wow, thanks b1tr0t, I never realized that. All these years I thought GEM and Alpha processors had something in common.
posted by XMLicious at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2008


About all they have in common is that Bill Gates managed to drink up their milkshakes.

DEC sort of lives on as HP/Compaq, but Intel ended up with most of DEC's interesting intellectual property.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:13 PM on January 25, 2008


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