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|Way New Interfaces, Revisited. Posted on 10/10/2001.
A long long time ago (May 1998), I wrote about "the speciation of the interface"--in fact, it was among the first pieces of writing for the site. Among the things discussed are "way new interfaces," attempts to go beyond the WIMP GUI toward new human-computer interface models. I'm reminded of it by the new website Nooface, a weblog that addresses "post-PC interfaces". It's a great resource of what's happening to move interface design forward.
I find a helpful model for thinking about the evolution of interfaces begins with an essay Sippey wrote nearly 6 years ago, "The Three Cs of Computing". In it, he identified Creating, Consuming, and Connecting. For my own purposes, I've shifted it to the 4 Cs and an E--Calculation, Creation, Consumption, Communication, and Entertainment (I've never found a good "C" word for Entertainment).
Computers began as number crunchers. Doing big math. You put a bunch of numbers in, you got a result out. A character-based interface was perfectly suited for this.
Then, thanks to spreadsheets and word processors, they became handy for creation. Character-based interfaces suffered because they couldn't mimic the printed version of the document. This is where the WIMP (Windows Icons Menus Pointers) graphic user interface came in handy. The Mac showed the world the efficacy of this model--black text on a white page looked like what you'd see in the end... It was WYSIWYG.
Right now, Consumption (of documents and other media) and communication (via email and instant messaging) have become the primary uses of computers. However, the interface paradigm has pretty much remained constant, and ill-suited to this new world. The WIMP GUI is fine for document creation, when you know what's in the document, because, well, you put it there. It suffers with Consumption, though, because since you didn't write the document, you don't know what to expect--this is what leads to a lot of lack of scrolling (it's not that user's don't scroll... they just tend to not like scrolling, and often don't scroll without a good reason).
With document consumption, particularly in a Web environment, the staccato, one-page-at-a-time presentation of information makes it difficult form a model of the information space, which is why so much of good Web design is about orienting users to where they are. A lot of the Way New Interfaces you'll see on Nooface attempt to address this by presenting information in single fluid spaces, where you can maintain context between a number of documents. As of yet, none of these models has really taken hold...
Communication is a much trickier issue. Interaction between people is mushy, fluid, subtle, filled with feedback, and used for a nearly infinite number of tasks. Email and instant messaging don't allow for anything that nearly resembles the complexity of real communication, as witnessed by the contortions people engage in trying to suit those applications to their needs. (The latest issue of Interactions features a great article on E-mail as habitat: an exploration of embedded personal information management", demonstrating how central email has become in managing all aspects of our work and personal lives. One of the authors, Nicolas Duchaneaut, has other articles on email available on his site)
Um. I should probably conclude this with some pithy comment, but my brain has just frozen. Good night. And see you in Portland.
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