Archive for August, 2015

The rise of useless interface design and the humanity killed by it

August 7, 2015

damn, I just remembered in the 80’s I had a clear and specific formula for UI design which I used as an argument why everything was designed the wrong way. I use to attempt to explain it to people but it fell on deaf ears. But now I can barely remember it….

It worked something like this:

Before writing one line of code one should define goals, the highest attainable order of goal is the superior choice.

The highest order is probably something like colonizing the galaxies.

To get there we have a lot of other goals to achieve. Most important of these is to minimize risk. The goal of a stable and robust society that preserves our most precious qualities.

There is no exact order of priorities (goals) but the programmer should always wonder what the parent goal is for his applications.

If the application can be used to accomplish a more generic set of goals it wont be as good as one dedicated to a single one (of those goals) but the sum of the parts may still be the superior choice.

Interface superiority comes in where a person without expertise or experience can accomplish a goal without study, education or reading a manual.

In 2015 normal every day computing we accept as normality that the user should find, chose, install and evaluate an application in order to accomplish some goal fragment of his greater goal.

Would we however flesh out a standard set of goals that people attempted to attain for hundreds if not thousands of years this find, chose, install, evaluate formula is already hurting the user interface to the point where the user doesn’t even know the goal is worth considering. You must think here (first) of incredibly basic things like nutrition, cooking, growing and finding your own food, making and repairing clothing, building and maintaining a house, learning and applying a useful skill, planning and taking notes of ones activities. etc etc The list is by no means limited to those and it should in fact include all human activities but these few make for nice and obvious examples. People dedicated their lives to each one of these activities and they did so far beyond recorded history. There is so much to learn about each one of these that one can never know it all. A sophisticated interface would start by putting these things in the users face and offer to take her by the hand and guide her on her adventure. If the goal is narrow enough the magic of interface forgiveness can be a powerful tool for success.

Analytics is a nice tool but the grand design of things should depend on those who are our most knowledgeable and those who have the most wisdom.

The importance of nutrition is not a statistic derived from the percentage of people who still care about the topic.

We should forcefully confront the user with the topic so that she may actively ignore it. Then, when a 20 second window of curiosity becomes available, the programmer should go out of his way to fit the maximum amount of valuable information into that 20 second attention span. The application should not be overwhelming but draw the user into the process. The programmer should go out of his way to maximize the users empowerment experience. We all know that good applications can do this for us.

In school I always hated topography with a passion, I thought it was the dumbest thing to memorize lists of country names and capital cities, it went in one ear and out the other. This makes a great example because I was among the most willfully ignorant students of the topic and I had the lowest grades that one can imagine. Then, much later in life, I “accidentally” installed Google earth and found myself spinning the globe in sheer amazement. Over a tiny set of very short sessions that felt free from any kind of study like qualities I came to know the countries and big cities but amazingly I even know how to find some tiny villages that captured my curiosity. I see a country fully encapsulated by South Africa with tiny villages on a mountain summit. Strange lines that look like an ancient irrigation system spanning an unimaginably huge area on the border between Namibia and Botswana. I roam around Sidney and New York using street view. I see myself look up the famous Russian village of Kolionovo.

Google earth did not arise out of tweaking an application based on user click though rates but it wraps and builds on many areas of expertise. But what is the real goal here? It seems to aim to show the world which is nice but a superior goal would be to interact with her. I could easily envision a more passionate relationship between me and my world that the kind between an actor and someone watching a movie. Lara Croft is very pretty but if she wont go out with me I will have to let her go. Sherlock Holmes seems like a fascinating guy but if I cant have a discussion with him our interaction wont attain the level of enlightenment I deserve.

In life the bottom line should not be to make as much money as possible but when designing a product one should ponder what kind of people we want to create.

The carrot and the stick are used to condition the donkey but they have as much influence on their user.

We might think that successfully controlling a character in a video game merely offers instant gratification but your influence on that character is of little importance compared to his influence on you.

Even just the tiny barrier of finding, choosing, installing and evaluating other applications accumulates to a full blown prison where the user does nothing else.

Building on what one knows he shall be more tempted to find a new game than to engage in any of the serious activities that our ancestors rightfully deemed so important.

I know I know, “fuck, I don’t know anything about gardening” but if we simply remind you it exists and offer those valuable insights when you need them a good bit of software could take all of the cognitive pain out of the process leaving you nothing but the work to do. Not even the greatest specialized expert knowns all the thousands of different onions and neither you nor him really needs to know that. It would be a fun novelty to include the data set some day but the general goal should be to have available to you a set of correct choices for your climate, soil and the amount of sun in your garden, the ways to obtain them, instructions to nurture them and of course the big question if you want to grow onions at all.

The mindless clicking around should need not be less enjoyable than playing a video game but the long term gratification and sense of accomplishment shall far exceed any amount of candy crush.

No doubt one skilled in the arts can design a dress in ms pain, gimp or blender but these applications are not going to forgive you for anything. It really shouldn’t have to involve more than measuring your sizes, picking your fabric and tweaking some templates. You may print your designs and make the dress yourself, you can email it to your mum or a professional tailor.

There is no reason why a carefully crafted application should require the user to have any expertise. Arguably, if anything goes wrong repeatedly it is always the programmer who is to blame. While they are no substitute for goals statistics and feedback are important here.

Maintaining a house is not some fringe exotic activity but in the “every man for himself” setting we end up using google to find well intended but poorly researched articles. A dedicated application would be wonderful but if one has to go find it first the “marketing” funnel will burn 99.9999% of the users of houses before installation and the features will be gawd awful.

If the icon was always there the user can feel empowered just looking at it. If his place needs a pain job it should take no time at all to learn about the different kinds of paint and if everyone is using the tool every paint merchant would want to streamline this process as much as possible. If things are rotten beyond the powers of paint there are logical steps to progress that can be illustrated and purchased. The software can accomplish much more and in contrast with a construction company it has endless patience. You can show of your results to friends and future house owners and view real world examples.

It can be hard for overworked deprived people to get into full system engineering for the greater good. Hell, knowingly or not, most people on the internet seem to aim for a world as sadistic as possible. But even if your soul desire is to exploit others you may consider giving others the means to flourish before exploitation. You may hate the idea that future generations would learn skills and obtain wealth in the end your quality of life depends entirely on theirs. The only type of joy left in the doctrine is to see others suffer.

It shouldn’t be as hard as currently imagined to have a pre-installed driving simulator that kids can use to become competent pilots of motor vehicles. Experienced drivers may want to learn how competent they really are, brush up on their skills or learn to pilot ever bigger vehicles – on land, on water, under water, in the sky and in space.

Trust me, simulators can do a lot more than teach you how to shoot people in the head or cut monsters in half with swords. Real life rewards are not looted from zombies and skills are not acquired by killing zombies for X hours. Ingame items are only valuable if you live inside the game. That might seem a silly statement but the numbers don’t lie, millions play games 24/7 only to be defeated by those who “miraculously” obtained better items, higher levels and greater skill. Things that can only be accomplished by superior dedication. Working people who dedicate every free hour to the game are left far behind and are not as easy to quantify but we can be sure they exist – millions of them. Non of these people are interested in any of those real world activities our ancestors filled their whole lives with.

The metrics, or shall we say leadership-free economic circle jerk where everyone is looking at everyone else has it-self completely convinced that gaming is the future, it is what we should invest all of our money in. No doubt we can study the brain to design the most addictive entertainment formulas. It shouldn’t be to hard to see what kind of silly goal that will accomplish in the long run.

The Walkman, the mp3 player and the smart phone already created a new kind of person, one permanently unavailable for social interaction. I’m not referring to interactions with me but interactions between all people. If the barrier is already to great for someone actively trying to talk with a person then the combined barrier between 2 such isolated people is just going to prevent the whole thing.

If applications are not designed around goals there wont be anything worth talking about.

The reason for us to talk or the goal of talking is to exchange information to aid in our survival. This isn’t as mundane as it sounds. Imagination plays an important role in shaping our vision and all these different kinds of entertainment combined with comfort allow us to dream like never before. That is until we remove the goals from the equation, then you one day wake up and you find yourself surrounded by brain eating zombies.

I welcome your skepticism and I’m sure you can find ways to disagree at least some things written here if not trivialize the whole concept. You might not be impressed by our understanding of the brain nor our ability to monitor it and obtain the statistics on how successful we are at locking you into pointless applications. You might even think that we wont make any progress in that field.

But I assure you, when we lock mankind into virtual reality it can be as potent an agent towards utopia as it can be towards dystopia. You might think you are slaying the zombies fast enough but they will slowly eat your brain from behind. Your arms extended in front of you your vocabulary will reduce to basic grunting. Even ordering food wont require any language.

Are you, dear reader, you self respecting programmer, are you a visionary or a zombie master? It is all up to you, are you going to nurture or eat the brains?