The interface of the future

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Before we jump into today's topic, allow me to introduce a very bright man I have the pleasure to correspond with on a regular basis. He is a senior global marketing professor at one of Louisiana's top universities in New Orleans.

Although he is no computer expert, he fully understands the impact computers have in his field and always stays on top of the latest innovations to understand what can and cannot be done, how, and by whom. Sure, we don't discuss the benefits of HFS+ over HFS but, for a person who did not learn to use computers before the age at which others consider retiring, I am always surprised by the extent of his knowledge and his good understanding of what's going on.

There was just one hiccup... His personal experience as a computer user wasn't extremely enjoyable. Since we meet on a regular basis, I had a chance to see his university-provided PCs go all the way from Windows 2000 to XP Pro, with all the small roadblocks that PC users are accustomed to : he was infected by viruses at least 5 times, had his hard drive entirely wiped by one twice, had to re-install Windows quite a few times and had to have someone work on the network for days every time he upgraded his installation before performance was satisfying. For the record, just let me say that he used an updated anti-virus from a trusted brand, that all this happened behind the university's firewall and own anti-virus hardware and that the computer was remotely managed by the IT department, right next door...

So we discussed the idea of switching to the Mac and, a few weeks later, he brought home a Titanium PowerBook with Mac OS X v. 10.2 and an AirPort base station. In a few days, he was actively using Sherlock for his research, had switched to wireless computing and printing, had his own calendars and contacts maintained by iSync, used his iDisk as a bridge between home, work and the foreign countries in which he gives conferences and, last time we met, he was considering adding an iPod to his installation as well as opening a class website on his .Mac account... Of course, we had a few issues to solve like the cable guy telling him that Macs weren't compatible with the Internet in New Orleans (LOL !) but nothing that a quick mail couldn't solve -- remember that, this time, he was on his own.

In other words, the switch was a success and, during our last informal meeting, we began talking about why he felt more at ease on the Mac and what he, as a newbie, would like to see improved with computers in general.

He suggested that computers should engage in a dialog with the user, try to understand what he likes and wants to do.

Wanna listen to some music right after unpacking your computer ? On goes an animated tutorial about music capabilities and one button to push to to to the iTunes music store or the built-in radio tuner : instant gratification or, in other words, a feel-good experience for the user. Wanna learn more about the internet ? On goes a movie to present the basics, while Mail and Safari launch.

Since even the keyboard and mouse are sometimes intimidating for newcomers, we thought of using Apple's Speech recognition technology too and mix it with tutorials like the ones used on .Mac. Just tell your computer what he wants to do and he will immediately show you how to do it.

Even though we only talked about installation, I soon realized that computer interfaces indeed lack the power to make suggestions. If your printer doesn't work, what about giving you basic troubleshooting steps -- and not in the help, one click away at most -- or suggest places to go to to get some ?

Those of you who use Macs or develop for it know that Apple is already halfway there : the setup assistant that starts up automatically when you fire your Mac up for the first time is quite close from what we discussed, the icons placed in the Dock by default are pointers to what you can do ( Apple puts iLife, Safari, QuickTime and a few others in there automatically, so you can find easily what you want to explore first ) and, the error messages guidelines provided to the developers stress the importance of being clear, making suggestions and having well-worded buttons -- not "Printing queue failed [OK], [Cancel]"...

I know it does not sound very impressive at first sight : a beefed up assistant, built-in tutorials... Sure, it's no 3D interface but imagine the difference it could make for users who do not necessarily understand the in and out of their machines. It's not yet another wizard but an interface that tries to understand what your needs are and to adapt itself according to them.

Some Windows or some Linux interfaces, for example, are full of wizards that get in your way instead of helping and this is mainly because they do not work with the user, because they try to replace the interface instead of introducing it to him. Apple does not believe in wizards : they believe in carefully designed assistants that give you a hand when you request it and introduce the real interface for you so you know what happens and how to change it later if you want.

Until next time, dear Mac users, enjoy thinking different !

And you, what do you think about interfaces ?


2004-03-31 08:54:48
Newbie Assistants and assistance
What you suggest has been tried with mixed results. My experience, both as a developer (on the Mac since 1987) and a teacher was that the more questions asked by the computer, the worse the experience is for the new user. They don't know if they want to try listening to music first; most often, they already have something in mind (for which they purchased their new Macintosh) and it only gets in the way to ask more "do you want to go here?" type questions. Of course, you could ask on the screen and make it very small and ask lots of such questions; this is exactly what happens when you first launch Safari and are taken to an apple customized internet portal. I always hate those things because they're so cluttered I can't find anything.

As for the speech interface, I've worked as a developer on both ViaVoice for the Mac and the alas, ill fated Dragon Naturally Speaking for MacOS X and I gotta say, even the very best speech recognition (far better than Apple's) cannot begin to deal with a new user who doesn't already know what they want to do and precisely how the computer expects them to express it.

I wouldn't mind seeing more of the old HyperCard "introduction to mouse use" type stuff Scully started, but beyond that, I think the current out of box experience for OS X is fine.

Just my opinion; worth what it cost you to read it. ;o)

2004-03-31 10:20:15
Newbie Assistants and assistance
Hi !

Thanks for taking the time to send me your comments, I always enjoy reading feedback ! :-)


2004-03-31 10:33:37
include tutorials
I like the approach that macromedia takes with its software. They include visual animated tutorials with the install package. This makes a lot of sense. People when they get a new computer are all set to learn. I have seen ones who don't know what a mouse is and how to hold one.
2004-03-31 22:22:50
It's a philosophical problem
You can't make an interface thinking for you, but a philosophical sentence can help you more understand the problematic. Is the human has to learn how the computer work or is the computer has to learn how human. I didn't have a real answer but i can tell you that Microsoft privilegiate the first and the second is more Apple like. Just try to think you take a kid from no where and he didn't have seen a car before and make him drive it. We touch a point where that it's in the referencial of the person. (which mean the person have to learn something)
2004-04-01 01:30:42
What a great idea!
Apple could put an animated character in the corner of the screen to give advice and information. Maybe a dancing paper clip?

...wait a minute!

Simon Hibbs

2004-04-01 08:51:23
Newbie Assistants and assistance
"I wouldn't mind seeing more of the old HyperCard "introduction to mouse use" type stuff Scully started"

Ah, remember those well. Must've been System 7 or thereabouts. They were great: simple, straightforward and utterly unpretentious, not assuming any prior knowledge on the part of the user. A very simple solution that did the job.

Unfortunately, they got the boot at some point (OS8?). Perhaps they just weren't fancy or complicated or glamorous enough any more? Or perhaps seen as an admission of weakness; after all, if this stuff actually needs explained to users then it can't be quite as super-easy as Marketing would like to make out.

I mean, if a smark cookie like Jimmy Doohan could get it so wrong in Star Trek IV, how on earth d'they expect my poor old mum to manage?

Ironically, given the power of modern machines - full-screen video, remoting/IPC and gobs and gobs of disk space - companies like Apple and MS could easily bundle first-class introductions and tutorials to their OSes and software with every machine. Less arrogance, snobbery and elitism in software; less emphasis on bells and whistles; more focus on helping the user with their current needs, and showing them all that the existing technology can provide.

2004-04-02 17:59:38
Re: Newbie Assistants and assistance
Thanks for the article. This is an interesting topic.

One of the challenges is capturing and holding people's attention long enough for them to learn something. Many people are impatient and (somehow) figure out just enough to get by and that's as far as they'll ever go, even when it's "crippling" them. I was quite surprised when I discovered a friend who's been using Macs for over ten years was totally unaware of control-click contextual menus, some which were exactly what she needed for functionality she'd long wanted in certain apps. Of course there's no set of "minimal basic requirements" for computer usage.

Something else that's noticeably lacking is education/training within a larger context of usability, e.g. Internet services. Yesterday I wrote this on some forum:

I'm not sure it's computer expertise per se that's lacking or what's necessary. When considering factors contributing to various e-mail related problems (some significant, like spam and viruses) on the 'net today aren't people who just "don't know better" and are unaware of negative consequences of their actions sharing some level of responsibility? Ignorance surely seems an inadequate excuse or defense. Hmm, maybe that sounds like I'm making innocent victims guilty. It's more like wondering how to help people help themselves so they avoid being victims at all.

That was related to thoughts I've had about how to integrate "newbie assistants/assistance" in webmail, for example.

So should we be thinking more seriously about "smart software" that assists with education/training for issues like that? Just distributing information about them doesn't seem to be enough to get people to take notice and respond. But you don't want to be intrusive either. Hmm... how might things be if spam were actually a *positive* information distribution resource? :-)

2004-04-02 18:01:34
Re: Newbie Assistants and assistance
The last two paragraphs in my post weren't supposed to be italicized. Where's the preview function here? :-)