- A few video presentations about usability
- The ten commandments of storytelling as they apply to documentation
- Kurt Cagle examines the paradox of free
- Web 2.0 is about giving up some control
- Some advice on organizing your screen captures and images
- Something people still argue about: one or two spaces after a period (for the record, I say one space …)
A couple of weeks ago, I loaded Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code on to my ebook reader. The book, about the trials and tribulations of the Chandler Project (an effort to create an uber PIM) is quite the enlightening read. It’s also very familiar — the problems that the folks putting together Chandler encountered were similar to the ones I witnessed on a couple of software projects.
What really struck me was a history lesson that Rosenberg included in the book. One of Rosenberg’s more intriguing comments was about computing and user interface pioneer Douglas Engelbart, and Engelbart’s thoughts about computers in general and UIs in particular:
The computer was to be a sort of prosthesis for human reason, and Engelbart wanted it to be powerful and versatile; he didn’t want to cripple it just to ease the user’s first few days or weeks in the harness.
That goes against everything we imagine about making an intuitive interface. And that, along with several other parts of the book, got me thinking (once again) about so-called intuitive interfaces. What Engelbart envisioned as a prosthesis is actually a crutch.
As I’ve mentioned in this space in the past, with one or two exceptions I don’t think that there are any intuitive interfaces out there. The interfaces we encounter are, for the most part, familiar. We’ve used them or something like them repeatedly in the part. They’re more ingrained than intuitive.
And still we have trouble with them. Or, at the very least, we complain about those interfaces. It’s really a no-win situation.
I’ve started to believe that in order to create a truly intuitive interface (or even attempt the deed), designers and developers really need to put the wrecking ball to the UI as it is now. It has to be rebuilt from the ground up without all of the preconceived notions that are built into user interfaces.
Doing something like that will be a seismic shift. I think this new interface would have to be even more radical than Sugar, the interface developed for the XO laptop. What will this interface look like? I can’t even start to imagine. My warped imagination conjures a mashup of Sugar, the LCARS interface from Star Trek, and a few interesting icons thrown in. Chances are that it will be something even more daring.
That won’t happen, though. Why? Can you imagine the backlash from the people who use software? That radical a change will be greeted with horror, disgust, and outright rejection. People will have to relearn how to use a GUI — not that it should take too long if the UI is truly intuitive. But most won’t even try. And I can see a small cottage industry of software to reskin the UI to look like GNOME or KDE or Mac OS or Windows springing up.
As we wait for the truly intuitive interface to come our way, we just have to muddle through with what we have. Technical communicators will need to work even more closely with UI designers and usability specialists to help make interfaces as easy to use (and as easy to document) as possible. I guess that’s as good a way as any to keep ourselves relevant. And employed.
Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.
Although I’ve begged her not to on a few occasions, Anne Gentle keeps making me think. A recent case in point: Anne left a comment on a post I wrote a few weeks ago about contracting in the current economy. Here’s the comment:
I just had an IM conversation with a technical writer in India who has to take a 5% pay cut. He wondered if he could make up the difference by working on freelance contracting jobs. I pointed him to Elance.com and Odesk.com, but I wasn’t sure if it’s probable or even possible to make up the difference on your salary with freelancing.
Anne then asked what advice I would give to a writer in a similar situation. My response:
Is it possible? I think so, to a point — if you’re making $40K/year, a 5% cut is $2K. The problem is a full-timer willing and able to spend the time and energy doing that. One decent side gig can pull that much in. But chances are the writer will have to take on multiple smaller gigs.
It’s not just a matter of doing the job, it’s getting the job too. Many of the employers who post on freelance bidding sites are looking for the lowest bidder — there are a lot of people who will work for lower wages.
As usual, the answer isn’t as simple as that. Sure, we all could do with making more money. But it’s not as easy as some people would have you think.
I’m well known for my dislike of many of the words that are bandied about in the wacky world of tech. I’m not one of the usage police, but I do grimace when I read words like “functionality”, “modality”, “non-trivial”, and the like in a document or article.
One word I really, really don’t like is user. For me, user has connotations of junkie. That we’re feeding some hapless soul with something that they’ve become addicted to. That the person has no choice but to absorb and use what we’re proffering them.
But for the life of me, I can’t come up with a substitute. The word user continually creeps into what I write and what I say. It gets to be annoying sometimes.
So, do you have an alternative to user? If so, feel free to leave a comment.
- Some advice on developing your business in a slow economy
- Use Twitter? Then here are some tips on creating a Twitter background to market yourself as a technical communicator
- Think DocBook and DITA have a monopoly on separating style and content? Well, LaTeX was there before them
- Anne Gentle on something Aaron and I believe: understanding the foundations before the tools
- What do you do when users don’t want help? Gordon McLean looks at that question
- A detailed article on reviewing user interfaces