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Interfaces and Usability

November 2nd, 2005
tech  [html]
Some general thoughts about user interfaces and usability, modified from a post I made on Slashdot in the interest of not having to explain views all over again:
Macs are nice. Macs are pretty. Macs are intuitive, easy to learn, and allow you to configure things without learning much about them. All good for some people. The question is, which people? Perhaps the casual home user who just wants a computer to check email and browse the web? For anyone who uses a computer a decent amount, it is worth the effort to learn some unintuitive but powerful programs. LaTeX with emacs would be a good example, in that you do need to go read some manuals, but once you start using them it becomes so much faster and they are so much more adaptable than standard GUI word processors. I use my computer every day. I rely on it for most of my work. As such, the initial experience and the amount of work that goes into learning how to use it effectively are very minor concerns compared to the benefit of being able to work faster, more efficiently, and with less UI sillyness. That OS X is intuitive and pretty is pleasant, but no real help in getting my work done.
This applies equally to Windows, really, with the exception that I think Apple does a better job at creating this sort of interface than Microsoft. There are Linux distributions, such as Linspire that also do this. But I think they all miss the idea that computer use should be about getting work done quickly and conveniently, and that the initial capabilities of a person who has not really learned the system are not all that important.

Computer-human interface is not yet anywhere near perfected. We have at least two powerful and mature systems in the GUI and terminal, and both remain severely limited. Programmers focus on making GUIs look pretty and not on using the extra interface flexibility to better communicate information. Terminal-based programs have very little flexibility in their display, yet they are often much faster than GUI programs at getting information across.

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