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Interfacial Relations 4
Volume Number:7
Issue Number:7
Column Tag:Developer's Forum

Interfacial Relations: Part IV

By Joost Romeu, Huntsville, AL

Part IV: Designer’s Vision

Conventional design subscribes to the laws of a Newtonian hardware universe. Computer software can create relativistic worlds which can separate fact from friction and control interface relationally. The difference? Newtonian apples disintegrate in time; Apple Macintosh software can be designed to mature with time.

Forgetting this fact, and motivated by short term rewards rather than long term respect, we’re accepting impressions over improvements and designing software that may, like other “labor saving” devices, enslave, rather than liberate us.

Symptoms are starting to show. The machine for the “rest of us” now requires specialists. Reformatting, optimizing, ATMing, INITing, and CDEVing our way through an increasingly complex desktop, we’ve moved from wide-eyed wonder to red-eyed reticence. Substituting dealer support for evangelism, Apple seems more interested in customers than believers.

System 71 will relieve many desktop anxieties and provide developers with exciting software extension possibilities. But Apple’s metaphor-ridden fast track is becoming a rush-hour quagmire. The human interface as we know it has become an industry standard--interesting, supportive, and educational--but hardly visionary.

Part IV, calls for visionaries. It discusses differences between traditional design and software design. It concentrates on the role of the designer, and the opportunity interface provides for restoring vision to the Macintosh.

Design Principles

“The (software) designer, instead of simply making an object or thing, is actually creating a persuasive argument that comes to life whenever a user considers or uses a product as a means to some end.”2 The designer, expressing subjective issues such as taste, direction, focus, etc. is attempting to convey a specific message. Understanding the message requires studying the program in context.

Context includes the background of the discipline the program addresses, the historical predispositions and present capabilities of the interface, the needs and proclivities of the contemporary user, and the designer’s vision. A database designer should, for example, consider the way information has traditionally been gathered; the computer’s ability to access, manipulate, and present that information; user demands and desires; and finally his/her personal vision how the process might be improved. (The call for vision is not farfetched. Industrial and architectural designs usually require the user approach the tool or space slightly differently than the way he/she was accustomed. Software interface design may be unique in that it often goes out of its way to try to accommodate the way things have been traditionally done.)

Context spans time. From the past it gathers the skills, from the present the promise, and from the future the hope. The designer combines these factors to form a design “statement.”

Limited by the constraints of physicality, conventional design addresses the world monophonically. The computer world--the world of visualization and simulation--isn’t so constrained. It has the ability to radically change the static “statement” into an interactive “dialog.” Traditional interface design fills a need. Visionary interface establishes directions. Relational interface epitomizes real time dialog.

Design Rules

Good design is dictated by rules. But the rules that define good design are fundamentally different than those that govern other disciplines. Whereas other sciences must submit to the laws of gravity, logic, or political consensus, design is amorphous. It defines its own coordinate system as it develops. Its foundations are aesthetic; its final judge, the user.

Design establishes, conforms to, and elaborates on principles. These principles are organized into paradigms, and eventually may develop into standards. The Macintosh human interface paradigm is a graphical tool that uses metaphor to provide recognizable, consistent, repeatable, and understandable operation. Its success has made it an industry standard.

We need to accommodate the standard and develop a new paradigm. One way to do this is to shift focus from icon- based recognizability to a design paradigm that expresses consistency, repeatability, and understanding in more abstract ways. System 7’s drag-and-drop functionality that automatically places system folder files into their proper subfolder deals with file placement in a more abstract manner.

Notice the slight paradigm change. Concentrate on metaphor and you identify with inert objects and their qualities (e.g. they look the same and act the same). De-emphasize metaphor and move to more relationally based abstractions such as consistency (acts similarly), and understanding (acts intelligently) and you begin to create an organism. Tomorrow’s applications will evolve from object-based to relational, organism-based motifs.

“Who,” What, When, Where

A computer application can be a chameleon and time lord. Remembering what it was, knowing where it is, and capable of changing direction when appropriate, a computer program can adapt itself to its surroundings and its context.

Classic design paradigms such as “form follows function” are dictated by territorial imperatives. They are concerned with the implications of filling space. Relational interface is more relative. Relational interface recognizes that a more diverse design approach--sometimes strictly functional and other times culturally fanciful--may be required to supply the degree of responsiveness the user desires.

Culture plays an important part in our design paradigms. We see the spreadsheet in the skyscrapers we work in, the printed media we read, browse, and fill out, and even in most major cityscapes we inhabit. Hypertext encompasses relationships with a more mandalic attitude. Even more random schemes are possible. The artist may want all his tools neatly arranged before beginning a project, but seldom does he enforce that relationship while the project is underway. Yet I know no application that allows the user the option to randomly scatter tools across the work surface as he works. A more relational scheme might store used tools off the desktop entirely. Tools could automatically be recalled by pointing to an area of the drawing generated using that tool.

The paradigms we take for granted--and those we assume everyone subscribes to--need to be reconsidered. Relational design expands location (where) into proximity, instance (what) into probability, and occurrence (when) into response.

Convention and Conversion

Applied to interactive interfaces, traditional design dictates and confines. Relational design celebrates. Conventional (post industrial revolution) design deifies brand identification and standardization. In contexts where production means and material resources are constrained by time this can be a humanitarian attitude (intended to provide the masses with well-designed objects). Extending the same paradigm to an animated software interface--a medium not limited by production means or raw materials--can produce a design that may initially appeal to a common denominator but can quickly wear thin.

Relational interface allows an application to dictate when necessary and break away when appropriate.

Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things3 discusses how market behavior and manufacturing dictates can undermine a good design or condemn a reasonable design innovation.

The Design of Everyday Things eschews the design world for foisting on its consumers interfaces that are unnecessarily complex. Don Norman pinpoints how marketers have subverted diversity by using it as a face-lift procedure to cosmetically hide a product’s true character. Diversity used this way is diversity appropriated as the ultimate fashion statement--a whim that can be applied to any product at any time. It can unnecessarily celebrate the wardrobe of a king who doesn’t need to excuse his appearance or deceptively celebrate the wardrobe of a king who has little to show for himself.

However, Don Norman’s response seems shortsighted. Rather than suggest interface solutions to tackle the increasingly complex programs that are being designed, he advocates that programs be less ambitious. This one-tool/one-function approach seems to sidestep quality by substituting (less) quantity and points to a proliferation rather than consolidation of disparate software tools.

Relational interface celebrates diversity by attempting to incorporate the vision of the designer, the communications savvy of the marketer, and the individual (or cultural) biases of the user.

7 Ups and Downs

Apple’s System 7 is an interesting combination of flight and fancy. Its switch to color seems a tastefully executed face-lift maneuver. Aliases add an interesting rhetorical component to 7. Essentially nom de plume’s, these metaphorical pseudonyms can provide multiple links to an original. Rhetorically, moving from files and folders to aliases signals a change of emphasis--from objects as metaphor to pseudo stand-ins.

Two hardly mentioned extensions, the Label menu and the slightly reinforced Get Info dialog box are ripe for expansion. The Label menu lets users color, label, and assign seven menu slots. But why just seven? Color is an appropriate way to abstractly designate and later discern minute shades of meaning. It’s an equally effective way to define spatial relationships in a field of discrete objects. User assigned colors are not content-laden and can effectively be used to establish relative amounts (e.g. file size) and relationships (e.g. modification dates, file kinds) without having to expose contents.

If someone succeeds in designing a Finder where objects relate to each other three dimensionally, the way fish behave in an aquarium--some segregated at the bottom or the top; others seeking the refuge of the reef, some banding together into schools, and free spirits executing predatory sorties--that design will employ color as a primary delimiter.

System 7 has stabilized the Get Info comments box and allows you to search this field. But Get Info has much more potential. Hopefully, it will develop into a resource center where the user can designate links to backup programs, schedule document updates, and establish hyperlinks.

The strangest feature to emerge from 7 is its drag-to-open function. Dragging a file across an application will cause that application to highlight if it can open the file. Leaving the file on top of a “friendly” application opens the file. Presently, the best way I can think of to use this function is to scavenge windows in metal detector fashion, dragging a document here and there until you find an application that will open it. What intrigues me is this function’s relational qualities. Unlike the double-click which predictably accepts or rejects the user’s Open instruction, drag-to-open employs the surprise factor (will it or won’t it?) to perform a similar function. Drag-to-open seems trivial now, but it could develop into a function that causes documents dragged over each other to combine, compare, collate, or otherwise co-operate.

System 7’s success will depend on how developers use it. If developers, trying to gain a marketing edge, change the desktop into a cacophony of bright clashing colors and bombastic sounds, or if applications insist on scattering aliases on the fertile desktop, graphical interfaces could become litter heaps.

Wind and Reign

With large investments of time and resources riding on the shifting winds of consumer fashion, today’s software seems less geared for gradual improvement or even manufactured obsolescence (the byword of 60’s designs) than for immediate gratification. Combine this attitude with design by consensus (rather than vision) and it’s not hard to understand why so many “new” designs all look the same.

As graphical interface is being “discovered” by the mainstream, interface standards are desperately trying to codify creativity. What they gain is a consistent, quality solution in a minimum time frame. What the solution lacks is soul.

Consumers are partially to blame. They trade quality considerations--which takes committed, hands-on involvement--for functionality. Buyers checkoff the features a product offers and stop only momentarily to get a whiff of its interface.

Even designers are at fault. Sniffing success they go for the gust, sacrificing smooth operation and response for flashy icons and merely adequate dialog boxes.

Storm clouds don’t develop until later, when users operating an application in a production environment find the software doesn’t relate to them.

From First Impression to Involved Relationships

Software designers need to establish a clear idea what they want their product’s relationship with the user to be. Appearances aside, do you want your software to assume the user is an expert with extensive experience in the field, a disinterested worker just trying to get his/her job done, a newcomer intent on picking up a traditional skill or a person intent on revolutionizing the industry. Relational interface believes it is possible to accommodate each audience.

Design Discourse4 is an excellent collection of articles discussing designers’ values and visions. Covering a wide range of designs, it discusses the relationships established between people, the objects they use, and the culture this interfacial relationship aspires to. It investigates the role and responsibility of the design as a conveyance of content and rhetoric. Design Discourse provides a convincing argument that interface design can have a profound cultural significance.

Designers attempt to establish and maintain principles. A successful design builds confidence. The best designs employ such subtle relational shades that they often go unheralded. In fact, we often don’t notice well-designed features until we operate a program where they’ve been overlooked. It wasn’t until I encountered a system that didn’t offer Undo that I realized how much I had taken it for granted.

We’ve all encountered interfaces that make us feel stupid or angry. A smart interface doesn’t assume its user is stupid. It assumes that the user gives it credit for not being stupid.

Take the program name field in the “Save As” dialog box. This field may:

- provide no name--and force you to compose a name from scratch,

- supply the same name--and force you to change that name to avoid replacing the current file,

- supply the same name, appended with a suffix--and establish a relevant yet distinct file name which you have the option of changing.

- provide a set of options--including time and date stamps, relevant database fields, as well as letter combinations you established earlier) from which you can accept a default or assign a unique delimiter.

An Auto Save function that allows you to determine the number of commands after which it will automatically resave can be annoying if the program auto saves before the xth command is executed. A full window scroll function that doesn’t leave a line from the previous window showing may actually conform to specs more than one that does but is infinitely less helpful.

Tiered error messages are a considerate design touch many users never experience. If the user repeats an error, the computer extends a developing set of messages designed first to warn, then to explain, then possibly to automatically access a relevant help file, (all the while executing necessary saves, etc.) in order to helpfully prompt the user through his rut.

An interface does not have to be inaccurate to act dumb. Consideration and helpfulness are qualitative features that in the final judgment may, as much as simple functionality and repeatability, determine which applications a user wants to continue his/her relationship with.

From Substance to Substantial

A television car advertisement makes the following point: “In developing our new cars we explored car safety issues that benefited the industry as a whole.” In providing software with more substance are we necessarily providing users with software that is more substantial? Functionally, most software products provide much more than any one user of that software needs. Operationally, few software products expand our concept of how things might better be done.

Visionary Trends

Nisus5 is an impressive word processor not so much because of what it does but how it does it. Nisus designers, by extending their interface through relational components, interactive visual aids, and common sense, have carved out a niche--”document processing”--from a task most people pigeonhole as “word processing.” Nisus interface extensions include:

- tab lines that, while tabs are being adjusted, extend past the ruler through the text of the window (making it easier to accurately line up text),

- hypertext-like document processing,

- full WYSIWYG find/replace functionality,

- font colors and styles that address electronic concerns,

- windows that split vertically and horizontally,

- powerful macro capabilities,

- command key combinations with multiple keystroke identifiers (e.g. “Cmd sp” can bring up the spellchecker),

- completely reassignable menu designation keys,

- preferences that govern many interface specifics--from scroll speed to parenthesis types,

- automatic document window arrangement capabilities,

- multi-document calls and comparisons,

- customizable document markers,

- page, date, time, document stamping,

- multiple clipboards

Nisus interface, though sometimes tricky to use, continues to be exciting and challenging because Paragon Concepts is willing to promote vision. Rather than refusing to incorporate a feature until it’s convinced the user will have to use it, it includes the feature because it respects the user enough to believe the user will find a way to use it.

Thought Pattern6, from Bananafish Software, takes a similar chance. Thought Pattern is a freeform information manager that provides tabs and filters to relationally categorize and later recall files and information cards. The user can concentrate on the content of the information, or its associated tabs, tab groups, and tab filters. It’s a nonlinear approach to information that allows the user to establish diverse links in small considered steps. It manages to establish relatively complex relationships without giving the user the impression he is constricting himself within a hypertext cocoon.

Deneba’s Canvas 3.07 explores the concept of tool independent software. Originally a conservative drawing program, Canvas has taken on so many tools that it’s written a tool manager. This manager enables the user to only load those tools required for the job. The more tools chosen, the more menu and toolbox items become available. Artists have always prided themselves on not being constrained by traditional media to express their vision. Canvas takes this vision to heart.

Sometimes the vision is more simply expressed. FolderBolt8, a subtle yet sensible security program substitutes dimmed folders for the “safes,” “padlocks,” and alarmist warnings of other security programs. By merely dimming inaccessible folders, FolderBolt complements the desktop and takes the edge off security by making it less assertive and more subliminal.

These products seek to redefine standards and challenge metaphors. Rather than pander to perceived market requirements and consumer taste each product tries to expand horizons. None take the safe route. Nisus’ powerful macro and power search language, for example, is a far cry from user friendliness. Nonetheless, other search routines are a whimper compared to it. Each is willing to take chances to open fertile ground.

What’s unfortunate is that larger, more established software developers--those with the funding and facilities to supplement their traditional ways with less traditional ventures--seldom provide surprises or vision.

The Macintosh Vision

“Design is an art of communication on two levels: it attempts to persuade audiences not only that a given design is useful, but also that the designer’s premises or attitudes and values are important as well.”9 The Macintosh interface vision has depended on graphical metaphor. In finally “discovering” this Apple vision, the rest of the world has reduced it to an industry standard. This development frees Apple to expand the vision--using metaphor as a component--and relational interface as its substance.

Part V discusses specific relational interface component standards and designs.


1 1991. System 7.0. Cupertino, CA. Apple Computer.

2 Buchanan, Richard. 1989. Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice. In Design Discourse. Edited by V. Margolin. p 95. Chicago, 60637: The University of Chicago Press.

3 Norman, Don. 1988. The Design of Everyday Things. Reading, MA: Doubleday Publishing Group, Inc.

4 Margolin, Victor. 1989. Design Discourse. Chicago, 60637: The University of Chicago Press.

5 1991. Nisus 3.05. Solana Beach, CA 92075. Paragon Concepts, Inc.

6 1991. Thought Pattern V1.1. San Francisco, CA 94117. Bananafish Software.

7 1991. Canvas 3.0. Miami, FL 33126. Deneba Systems.

8 1991. FolderBolt. Folder security. Houston, TX 77056-3104. Kent Marsh Limited.

9 Buchanan, Richard. 1989. Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice. In Design Discourse. Edited by V. Margolin. 97. Chicago, 60637: The University of Chicago Press.


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