designing everyday things and computer interactions

I've been reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.  It was originally written in 1988 and my edition was revised in 2002, but it still retains archaic examples like electronic land-line phones without screens that were in common use around the time of the original writing.  The author also used visicalc as an example of spreadsheet software and referenced the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa as failed personal computer designs.

Despite a few of these examples (which are no longer "everyday"), he does make some good points, namely that the principles of good design are visibility (to determine the system's state and possible actions), a good conceptual model (so the user develops a coherent idea of what's going on and why), good mappings (knowing what physical movement performs what system action), and feedback (informing the user about the results of actions).

When I got to the section on computers, there was a subsection titled Two Modes of Computer Usage.  Norman described commands as either "third-person" and "first person," the former being issuing "actions" from a command line and the latter being GUIs (although he never used that term since the book was written before it became a common acronym) like games and spreadsheets.  I don't really like this terminology as it is arguable inaccurate.  No matter what, if you're interacting with a computer, it's first person.  Maybe if you were tunneling to another computer it might be "third person," but even then your commands don't change at all.  Norman made the distinction by saying that using a command language feels more like you asking someone else to do something, whereas inputing data into a spread sheet feels like you're doing it yourself.

I guess my conceptual model (to use his terms) of the computer varies from his (which isn't surprising given the generation gap), but in my mind, the 1st and 3rd person terminology should work the other way around if you have to use it at all.  On the command line, you say piece by piece what you want done, whereas in a GUI, you let "someone else" take care of the details for you.  Lower level is more direct.  GUIs simply mirror physical interactions, which is why they feel more like direct interaction at first.

Then, when you want to move your clipart a little to the right and the word-processing software won't let you move it exactly how you want, you'll realize that it's not quite like the physical world.  Problems like these are design flaws stemming from the premise (or conceptual model) that interacting with the computer is like interacting with things in the physical world.  While text-command interactions are harder to learn, they are less prone to these flawed conceptual models.  The history of graphical computer interaction is one of constantly trying to make it more like the physical world.

GUIs and command line interactions both have their purposes.  I'd never want to do digital art with a command line.  (Well, not never.  I might actually prefer a scripting interface for things like cropping, scaling, color adjustment.)  But listing the contents of a directory, moving files, or compiling software?  Command line, please.


it's the end of the world as we know it

and I feel fine.  If you've been in a bubble recently, the Rapture was scheduled for 6pm eastern time today. N and I were driving along and 6 o'clock hit.  On the radio, REM's It's The End Of The World As We Know It came a'blasting and it made my day (his too, I think).

update: it might have been local time, not eastern time, but I don't care enough to look it up.


sarcasm, the three C's, and taking things seriously

One thing I noticed about my brother when he came home was that he was much more serious than before, that is, he took himself and pretty much everything about life more seriously.  We had a brief conversation about sarcasm and how it can really "kill the spirit," or stop conversation, make people feel bad, etc. and how he has reduced its use.  As his sister that's a bit of a shame because I liked the stabbing remarks back and forth as we went through the world together--it was fun.  I can see, though, some merit to his points.  Sarcasm, or mocking humor in general, has its place, but there are many more places it doesn't belong.

Reading a T&S post on 3 C's and 1 S made me think about this further.  It basically said complaint, comparison, criticism, and sarcasm were all to be avoided.  I've explored complaint previously and commented on it being a privilege and a mechanism for social change; comparison and criticism can work the same way, and the T&S post acknowledges this for the most part.  Except criticism isn't defended.  I'd like to argue that criticism when done well/nicely is simply comparing what is to what can/should be, and is useful for those purposes.

This made me want to tease out the differences between the three C's to really understand what is useful and good and what is not.  Here are my thoughts:
  • a complaint is an expression of discontent ("I don't like the way you treat me.")
  • comparison is determining similarities and differences between two things ("I like the way Anna treats me better than the way you treat me.")
  • criticism is the act of passing a judgment ("Anna treats me well" or "You treat me poorly.")  [Criticism can sometimes mean only judgements that result in finding faults, but this is the most broad definition.  Even positive statements like "Anna treats me well" can illicit negative emotions if the listener is sensitive to its implications, i.e. that the listener doesn't treat the speaker well.]
  • comparison can exist within a moral context ("Anna treats me better than you do.") but can also exist outside of a moral context ("These shoes are newer than those ones.")
  • complaint and criticism can only exist within a moral context ("I don't like the Bob treats me," "I don't like my old shoes," and "Anna treats me well." all require moral contexts.) [Distinguishing between morality and opinion is tricky and something that could consume a whole simplify, let's say that any given individual believes that parts of their moral context can and possibly should be applied to everyone but the subset of their aesthetic/sensational opinions is acknowledged and respected as being individualized, but still morally charged since what the judge likes is "good."]
  • complaints are voiced criticisms where the judgement passed is "bad," or complaints are a subset of criticism ("I don't like my old shoes" is both, "Anna treats me well" is only a criticism.)
  • criticisms are comparisons within a moral context, or criticisms are a subset of comparisons ("I like the way Anna treats me better than the way you treat me." is both while "These shoes are newer." is only a comparison.)
Context is incredibly important.  Sometimes a moral context can be implied or inferred even if the intention is not there: with the statement "My shoes are newer than yours," "newness" can be understood as a moral/aesthetic good and the listener could feel shame for having old shoes; the listener might think the statement was a criticism when it was intended only as a comparison.  All three C's can be dangerous, partially because they are so similar and easily mistaken for one another.  Despite this, we still need all three to enact change for the better.

And that brings me back to sarcasm.  We don't strictly need it in that it is requisite for change, but I think that some people need it in order to enjoy life.  I'm not saying that people should use others for their enjoyment, but sarcasm employed as a tool of humor can put things in perspective, or help us to not take things so seriously.  Sometimes we need this so that we can put a problem aside and move on, which just as necessary for change as the three C's are.  Sarcasm isn't the only tool for this, but it is one of the most potent, and for that reason it should be allowed to stay in the toolbox (but handled with care).


time passes...

Last weekend (Was it really that long ago?  Yup, it was.  I've been so unproductive...) I went home to see my brother, who was coming home from a 2 year religious mission in Sweden.  I've missed him a lot and it was good to see him.  Yay family!

It wasn't as strange as I expected...he wasn't as zealously religious as I braced myself for; I was happily surprised to find that he had matured greatly instead.  The realization that he had changed a good deal hit me when after 20-some hours of being awake he calmly and efficiently dealt with a lost bag instead of letting someone else take care of it for him, which he would have gladly done a few years ago.  He was generally more collected and reserved than I remembered him.  I'm sure he will change more in adapting to post-mission life, and I know that I am not aware of all aspects of these changes, but it will be interesting to get to know Brother 2.0.

Since coming home, I've been wildly scatterbrained, flitting from gardening to learning ggplot2, Russian history reading to plotting the layout of the new apartment we'll move into in July, and unclogging sinks to watching the second season of the TV series Merlin.  I've also been on a wonky sleep schedule; everything feels like the pieces of a puzzle that don't quite fit together--I need to go capture some normalcy.