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I Hate Mice

At Xerox Parc in the 1970′s, Alan Kay fostered the innovations that form the foundation of modern computing. Windowing, mice, object oriented languages, laser printing, WYSIWYG, and lots of other stuff we take for granted today either had its start or was fleshed out at Xerox Parc.

The venerable mouse, which enabled direct manipulation of content on the screen, was just one of a few innovations that was screen-tested as a possible heir to the venerable cursor and text terminal metaphor which had predominated since the dawn of computing.

Mice, trackballs, light pens, tablets, and Victorian-looking headgear tracking everything from brainwaves to head and eye movements were all considered as the potential input devices of the future. No doubt there were other metaphors besides windows considered as well. Hypercard, anyone?

Steve Jobs, by selecting the mouse as the metaphor of choice for the Lisa and subsequent Macintosh computers, sealed the deal.  Within a year, Bill Gates, by stealing the same design metaphor for use in Windows 1.0, finished the deed.  By 1986, the mouse was a fait accompli.

Since the dawn of the Mac and Windows 1.0, we’ve taken for granted the notion that the mouse is and will be the primary user interface for most personal computing and for most software.

However, computing is embedded in every part of our lives today, from our cell phones to our cars to games and zillions of other devices around the house, and those devices have myriad different user interfaces.  In fact, creating new user experiences is central to the identity of these technologies.  What would an iPhone be without a touch screen?  What would the Wii be without its Wiimotes?  What, indeed, is an Xbox 360 but a PC with, uh, lipstick and a different user interface metaphor?

(An aside: How awesome would it be if the iPhone, Wii, and Xbox 360 all required the use of a mouse?  People fidgeting on a cold day, taking out their iPhone, holding it in their left hand, plugging in their mouse, working it around on their pants to make a call.  Kids splayed out on the rumpus room floor, mousing around their Mario Karts. Killer, souped up force-feedback mice made just for killing people in Halo.  Mice everywhere, for the win.)

So, what’s with the rant?  Simply that the web has taken a bad problem — our over-reliance on mice — and made it even more ubiquitous than it was in the worst days of windowing UI’s.

“And then if you click here…”

No, here — not over there.  Click here first.  Scroll down, ok, then click submit.  Now click save.

See the problem?  The reliance on the mouse metaphor on the web is fraught with two hazards.

  1. Mice require users to become collaborators in your design.
  2. Each user only brings so much “click capital” to the party.

Catch My Disease

We’ve all had the experience of using a site or app that requires a great deal of either time or advance knowledge to fully utilize.

You know the ones — the ones with lots of buttons and knobs and select boxes and forms just waiting for you to simply click here, enter the desired date, choose the category, then get the subcategory, choose three friends to share it with, then scroll down and enter your birthdate and a captcha (dude) and then simply press “check” to see if your selection is available for the desired date; if it is, you’ll have an opportunity to click “confirm” and your choice will be emailed to you, at which point you will need to click the link in the email to confirm your identity, and you’ll be redirected back to the main site at which point you’ll have complete and total admin control over your new site.  Click here to read the section on “Getting Started”, and you can click on “Chat with Support” at any time if you have any questions.

What the hell do these sites want from you?

If these sites are trying to provide a service, why do they need you to do so much to make them work?  Sure, some stuff is complex and requires information and processes and steps to empower them, but when you ask users to participate too much as key elements in your design, you create frustration, resentment, and ultimately rage.  That’s cool if that’s your goal, but if you’re trying to get happy users, you’ve done nothing to advance that cause.  So, it shouldn’t be about “all you have to do is click here and here.” Ask less of your users.  Do more for them.  Isn’t that what service is all about?

Limited Click Capital

Sometimes, people just want to be served — even entertained or enchanted. They don’t want to become the slavish backend to a maniacal computer program that requires 6 inputs before it can continue.  Is the user in service of the computer, or is the computer serving the user?  I always thought it was the latter.

I’ll never cease to be instructed by the lessons learned from developing my sites Twittervision and Flickrvision. Both sites do something uncommon — they provide passive entertainment, enchantment, and insight in a world where people are asked to click, select, participate, scroll, sign up, and activate. It’s sit back and relax and contemplate, rather than decipher, decide and interact.  Surely there are roles for both, but people are so completely tired of deciphering, that having a chance to simply watch passively is a joyful respite in a world of what is mostly full of badly designed sites and interactions. This alone explains their continued appeal.

People come to sites with only so much “click capital,” or willingness to click on and through a site or a “proposed interaction.”  This is why site bounce rates are usually so high.  People simply run out of steam before they have a chance to be put through your entire Rube Goldberg machine.  Make things easier for them by demanding fewer clicks and interactions.

Make Computing Power Work For Your Users

Truism alert: we live in an age with unprecedented access to computing power.  What are you going to do with it?  How are you going to use it to enchant, delight, and free your users?  Most designs imprison their users by shackling them to the design, turning them into nothing more than steps 3, 6, 8, 9, and 11 of a 12 part process.  How are you going to unshackle your users by making them — and their unfettered curiosity — the first step in a beautiful, infinitely progressive algorithm?

Predict and Refine

Forms and environments that rely on excessive interaction typically make one fatal assumption: that the user knows what they want. Most users don’t know what they want, or they can’t express it the way you need to know it, or they click the wrong thing.  Remove that choice.

Do your best to help your users along by taking a good guess at what they want, and then allow them to refine or steer the process.

Remember, you’re the one with the big database and the computers and the web at your disposal: how are you going to help the user rather than asking the user to help you?  You’re advantaged over the user; make it count for something.

Don’t Think About Mice

Mice lead to widgets. Widgets lead to controls. Controls lead to forms. Forms lead to hate. How are you going to break free from this cycle and give your users something compelling and useful with the minimum (and most appropriate) interaction? What is appropriate interaction?

It depends.  What if you rely on gestures, or mouseovers, or 3 yes or no questions in big bold colors?  That’s minimal and simple.  It  may be just what you need to empower your idea and serve your users.

I’ve been working with the WiiMote and the iPhone a lot lately, and trying to use touch screens, accelerometers, and the Wii’s pitch and roll sensors to create new kinds of interaction.  Maybe this is right for your work.

Think about it and don’t assume traditional mouse/web/form interactions. Sure, sometimes they are the right and only tool for the job, but if you want to stand out and create compelling experiences, they surely can no longer be the central experience of your design.

Long Live the Cursor

Back in the early days of GUIs, there were lots of people who contended that no serious work would ever get done in a window and that the staple of computing and business would be the DOS metaphor and terminal interactions.  There have been dead-enders as long as there have been new technologies to loathe.  I’m sure somewhere there was a vehement anti-steel crowd.

The mouse, the window, and HTML controls and forms are the wooden cudgels of our era — useful enough for pounding grain, but still enslaving us in the end.  How will you use the abundance of computing power, and new user interface metaphors to free people to derive meaning and value?

  • Mike Foston

    Dave

    You are a hard man to get an email to… hehe I’ve tried, but thought I’d leave a comment here. I’d like to talk to you about your projects flickrvision and spinvision, because I am working on something myself and could badly do with a hint or two if you can spare a few minutes.

    I can drop you an email with some brief details if you could perhaps email me with the best address for you?

    thanks for your time

    Mike