8900: Interface in flux

I feel silly saying this so bluntly, but 2004 was a long time ago. So was early/mid 2003, which is probably the rough timeframe Wysocki and Jasken set about writing “What should be an unforgettable face …” for its March 2004 publication.

Let’s round this out to an even nine years ago and snapshot the changes between Fall 2003 and Fall 2012: Windows XP hadn’t reached its dominating saturation point yet, so most users were operating in Windows 98 or 2000. Apple Mac OSX was still a puny minority of usership that had no impact on the greater interface landscape. The iPod was not yet the ubiquitous music serving device, having begun only its third generation. Facebook and MySpace were still nascent. The first iPhone and the waves of similar smartphones were still four years from launch. The dominant social writing venue was still LiveJournal. Public wireless access was still mostly offered only to large university communities.

These and many other interfaces stand between us now and us then. At the time “Unforgettable face” was written, the dominant interfaces of software still played largely by the Microsoft Windows rules; the vast majority of all computing tasks, writing included, happened in Windows environment. Thus, interface advanced only as much as this massive software landscape allowed it. There were the alternatives of Linux and Mac out there, but at that time they served niche users, so virtually all writing applications for Windows had the same over aesthetic.

Admittedly, the growing Mac usership hasn’t really challenged the Microsoft model. In both environments, we still have a row of menus to choose from, and within each the same basic types of functions can be expected to be in the same basic space: the File menu still features saving, opening, and printing; we still have the same icons for basic functions at the top of the screen; our text still appears on a simulated page surface; we still utilize the same conventions of formatting our text – although that may have more to do with the persistence of the academy’s expectations than the software.

What has challenged the model is the explosion of touch screen environments. When opened up to the processing power of these small, inexpensive little computers, app developers have shown enormous creativity in recreating interfaces over and over again. Swiping, taping, pinching, and dragging offers ways to interact with our writing spaces that desktops and laptops still don’t replicate. This has perhaps restored the personal quality of writing that the authors say is missing from computer-based composition. Especially on the larger devices such as the iPad, document drafting, management, and customization has gained depth and immediacy.

I won’t deny that this same omnipresent communications technology doesn’t lead to greater distraction (although at least in cases of Facebook and Twitter, we are distracted from our writing with more writing), but surely the benefits come out ahead. If we continue to expand interfaces to more closely approach invisibility (remember that Google Glass is on the horizon), perhaps we will retake all of the immediacy of tangible composition and enhance it with the flexibility and creativity enabled by the technology we’ve come to appreciate these past nine years.


4 thoughts on “8900: Interface in flux”

  1. Fascinating. I like those connections – hadn’t thought it through before. But part of the appeal of a “universal” command system for keyboards, icons, menu navigation, and other interface commands, is their utility across multiple platforms. If you walk up to a strange computer, chances are you need to do one of these four things. Make them easy and instantly recognizable and you simplify cross-platform use. But that’s just for what we think of as “desktop” interfaces (interesting that the physical hardware and the virtual ‘surface’ are known by the same name). For transactions any simpler than that, we have the equivalent of ‘automated teller machines’ in every corner of life, from the drive-through bank to the fast food counter, ticket kiosks in trains and movie theaters. None of us know the interfaces to those in advance, but they’re relatively simple, multiple choice transactions of information, and so we can learn as we go with only a little reading and some visual cues (think 8-bit icons; or red button, green button). Only the complex interfaces have those universal commands. And their reliability, universality, and simplicity are their primary functions, not their failures.

  2. This is really smart – I’m glad that you pointed out how much has changed in the last 8 years. We hear all the time (at least I do) how much more ‘user friendly’ Mac is than PC, whether that’s true or not, I have never been able to determine, since both interfaces seems very simple. But isn’t it true that Windows 7 decided it needed to look more like Mac OS(whatever version they’re on now)?

    1. To me, moving between the environments is pretty fluid, and I anticipate I’ll always have at least one machine running either OS for the foreseeable future (a MacBook for work/school needs, a Windows desktop for gaming). There are certain similarities Windows and Mac will always share, but the most recent version of Windows (8 – to be released at the end of October) is actually much different in appearance. It’s designed with large, high contrast “buttons” to make it friendly for universal use across keyboard/screen and touch platforms. (I just talked with you and Jay at Saxby’s, by the way)

      I don’t know if it includes a mode to reskin the interface to look like earlier versions of Windows – a feature that’s been around since at least the release of Windows XP. I know it’s possible to get the Windows 7 style Start menu back in the developer pre-release version, but that’s accomplished by editing the system registry. The average end user doesn’t feel comfortable with such a sensitive procedure. From an interface standpoint, I wonder if it would be wise to leave the feature out. It will certainly hinder adoption if it’s not a simple click-to-activate feature as it has been before.

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