Prolegomena to future interface design

Jef Raskin
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Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University October 5, 2001

Why do we have so much trouble using digital devices? From computers to voice-response phone systems, we make them the butt of our jokes and a topic for commiseration. Many of us think that there is something inherent in the nature of these products that makes them behave as they do. This is not true: The problem is primarily one of choices made by the people who design, produce, market, and sell them. Surprisingly, many designers are more aware of arcana such as what different colors mean in European, Malaysian, and Chinese cultures than they are with basic facts that apply to *all* humans. In other words, we have interfaces that while optimized in some relatively superficial ways for some of us, are fundamentally wrong for all of us. That is why I call the underlying principles so often ignored "prolegomena"; they must be attended to before other interface design criteria can come most beneficially into play.

The science of applying empirical cognitive principles to our mental interactions with technology is called cognetics, by analogy with ergonomics, the science of applying empirical knowledge of human physiology to the physical design of machines. A study of cognetics reveals that much of what is taken for granted as standard -- or even good -- interface design, is wrong or misleading. The usual guidelines offered by Microsoft, Apple, and others sometimes lead to incorrect design decisions. It is time for some basic changes.

Change is difficult. There are vested interests and human inertia to be overcome. We are burdened by legacy systems, and even the people who complain loudest find that new methods, even if far better, require unlearning the old and relearning the new. Improvement is painful, but necessary if information technology is to reach more of humanity and work more effectively and productively with those that are already using it..There are few in the industry who do not preach the mantra of usability. But it is viewed as an arcane art, featuring dubious gurus who pronounce contradictory advice. My work joins that of the few who are turning portions of the art of interface design into an engineering discipline.

The presentation will amplify material found in my book, "The Humane Interface" (Addison-Wesley, 2000). I expect to present a demonstration of interesting software that exemplifies some cognetic principles.

Jef Raskin is best known for having invented the Macintosh computer at Apple and for his book "The Humane Interface" (which reached 36th on Amazon's list of its top 100 bestsellers, received 3 printings in its first year, and will soon be available in 6 languages). An interface design consultant who has worked for dozens of companies around the world, Raskin holds a number of interface patents, and hundreds of his articles have appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Wired, Forbes ASAP, the Communications of the ACM, Quantum, IEEE Spectrum, Byte, Skeptical Inquirer, and elsewhere.

Named as one of SUNY Stony Brook's all-time top 40 graduates, and one of Penn State's top 10 engineering graduates, Raskin has been a professor and computer center director at the University of California, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and elsewhere. He has a strong interest in early music and was the conductor of the San Francisco Chamber Opera Co.

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