A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

17. March 2005 by jeremy
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