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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?

Twittervision Election View

An hour or so ago I launched Twittervision Election View, allowing viewers to see posts to Twitter about the 2008 election in their original geographic context.

Twitter launched something similar this morning, and the idea to do a political view of Twittervision has been around for a while, so it seemed natural to try to do this now and especially in advance of tonight’s debate.

We have some enhancements planned, and right now the site is getting a ton of traffic as people discover it… we should be able to put some more server capacity on it which should keep things steady.

Let me know what you think!

Twittervision API Changes

When we first launched Twittervision in early 2007, Twitter was still a pretty small community of users (around 200,000) and only the press and the digerati were paying much attention to it.

Today, with just over 1M users, Twitter is still pretty small by Internet standards, but a lot of people are paying attention to it.

Our API was designed to allow individual users to use the Twittervision location features. A lot of people are using it. We also had a fair number of people who were using our API as an alternative to the Twitter API and trying to harvest vast amount of data using our free API.

Sadly, this was restricting service to others, so we are making some changes to the API that make this kind of use no longer possible. Those of you using the API for your individual projects or in support of client-side apps will see no changes for now — keep doing what you’re doing.

We do sometimes engage in licensing agreements, however, so if you are interested in licensing our data, please contact me at dave at twittervision.com.

The Connections Episode: Pulver TV, The Tech Tax, Berlin!

This was another action-packed week for me which I’m just recovering from now.

On Tuesday, I headed up to New York to be a part of another of Jeff Pulver’s social media breakfasts. This one was at Friend of a Farmer (Gramercy Park area) and featured about 100 of New York’s most active social networkers. I had a great time and met a ton of people, some of whom could become potential collaborators.

Jeff’s onto something with these breakfasts. It’s not rocket science — it’s getting people together who are preselected via a common medium — but his belief in turning online connections into real human connections is powerful, and it will be the basis of much of how we all do business in the future. The world is re-sorting itself. More on that in a minute.

After the breakfast I headed over to Jeff’s offices in Melville, NY to be on Jeff’s online TV program, Pulver.TV. I was a featured guest, as was Ann Bernard from whygosolo.com, a new social networking service (and Facebook app) that “makes spontaneous connections happen”. More on that in a minute too.

Interview with Dave Troy:

Interview with Ann Bernard:

On Wednesday, I made an important appearance in Annapolis, Maryland at Save Maryland IT Day. For those of you reading this from outside Maryland (I dare say most of you), our state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has passed a law that imposes a 6% sales tax on all “computer services” — whatever that means. Anyway, it applies to me and what I do and I have been part of a team of technology business leaders fighting this law. There are several bills pending that would repeal this tax, but it won’t be easy to do. We need to get the word out about this to everybody in Maryland. This tax is bad, bad, bad! Learn more at the website for the Maryland Computer Services Association.

I developed a tool to help fight this tax: Call your legislator for free and express your opposition to the tax.

The World is Re-Sorting Itself
I’m active in my local technology business community. I think that’s all part of good citizenship, and it’s good business and common sense to connect with people who are close-by and like-minded.

But things are changing. The two local technology councils, and the economic development agencies who help to fund them, are primarily geared towards old-school, big-iron economic development. Convince a big company to put a corporate headquarters in your state (or county) and you’ve got a lot of jobs, tax base, and capital investment for years to come. This is not a criticism; this is naturally what they would want to encourage and it’s great as far as it goes.

But that world is slipping away. Today, geography is no longer a primary concern for companies. Small, focused companies can be virtual, or distributed, and this is more functional than it’s ever been. I am struck that Maryland wants to push its technology activities outside its borders.

Meanwhile, I am meeting my most valuable collaborators in places like New York, London, or Berlin, and finding that they live all over the world. I am more likely to start a company with people from six states and three countries than I am to start one entirely headquartered in Maryland.

Collaboration of subject-matter experts is what drives excellence in business and we are no longer likely to be able to convince these experts to co-locate near each other for years at a time. People choose where to live for a host of reasons that, ideally, should and can be disconnected from their professions.

Social networking tools now make it possible for us to locate and stay connected to our peers wherever they may be.

Likewise, Ann Bernard’s brilliant WhyGoSolo concept helps connect people in an orderly way to share experiences. It’s not a dating site; I described it as kind of like couchsurfing.com, only standing up. Meet new people, experience new things, grow your network, push your mind. A lot of people gravitate towards the more libidinous aspects of ideas like this, and hey, what happens between consenting adults is their business.

But again, that’s not the point. We’ve only got about 80 years on the ship here, and life’s too short not to use every last minute to its fullest. To the extent that social networking can help us make new connections — both business and personal — shouldn’t we milk it for everything it’s worth?

All these concepts — Jeff’s breakfasts, WhyGoSolo, couchsurfing.com — help us make connections and maximize our life ROI.

Noel Hidalgo’s Trip Around the World: CoWorking
As an experiment, I spent summer 2007 living in Berlin with my family. I got to know several ex-pats who were living there, or just passing through.

Coincidentally, I met up with Noel Hidalgo, whose “Luck of Seven” project was taking him on a trip around the world. Here’s video I just found on blip.tv of my interview with Noel in Berlin in July 2007.

Noel did a beautiful job editing this video. The kid with the accordion, the windmills, the street scenes — he captured the zeitgeist of Berlin, summer 2007 perfectly.

Also with us that day was my friend Travis Todd, who coincidentally (and completely unbeknownst to me before meeting him there that day) is from Annapolis, Maryland and was a customer of mine years ago when I owned an ISP. And his little brother went to pre-school with my son.

See, Maryland? We don’t need you. Tax us and we’ll move to Berlin.