A Jef Raskin Interview From A Year Ago

I only just found out that Jef Raskin passed away last month. I thought I would post an email interview I had with him a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

On Mar 9, 2004, at 7:22 AM, Jeremy Wagstaff wrote:

Jef, sounds better if I send the questions by email… I have greatly enjoyed your book, a real eye-opener, although unfortunately time constraints may mean I am not able to digest as thoroughly as I should have. So please forgive any questions below which could be answered by a closer reading of your book! — Would you mind giving a brief elaboration of your comment that ‘I have learned a great deal about interface design, human psychology, and human physiology since creating the Macintosh project a quarter century ago — and even then I wanted to use the mouse far less than the larger role given to it by later workers at Apple’. What have you learned, exactly? Where are we going wrong with the use of the mouse?

To ask what I have learned, exactly, is answered by my book and articles. There is no short answer that fulfills the requested “exactly”. It is now well established (I sent you the latest and best reference) that mouse use should be minimized, and it has been long known (since at least the 1980s) how slow mouse operations are. The problem has been that keyboard-based solutions have been even worse in terms of learnability and memorability. But the mouse (or other pointing device; I prefer tablets for drawing and a good trackball for pointing, but that’s personal preference) is essential for graphics. THE is designed to use both the keyboard and the mouse where they are appropriate and not use them where they are not; and I have found pleasant solutions that make THE both learnable and memorable — as testing has shown.

But the most important things I have learned are those involving how humans learn and work. Applying that research-based knowledge and using the quantitative tools that have been developed facilitate the development of much better interfaces than we now have. – When you say ‘It is still the case that most of what we do with computers (estimates are typically 80% to 85% on a time basis) involves the creation, reading, and editing of text. And for this kind of work, the mouse is usually inappropriate’ could you give examples? Do you mean users should use more keystroke combinations?

Using the rather arbitrary keystroke combinations now available is a finger-twisting exercise that is frustrated by the inconsistent way they are used in different applications. Often there are no keyboard methods for some tasks. The present ad hoc keystroke combinations are pathetic. Users should demand better software, there is no way to use the present interfaces well.

I was going to suggest in my column that users make a better distinction between tasks, i.e. between a) thought flow tasks — writing, mainly — where reaching for the mouse could only distract and disrupt thought, and therefore should be avoided and b) housekeeping tasks, where the visual GUI could be made more use of via the mouse than it is — for example, by dragging things between windows. But perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree, or confusing people further?

I don’t think that that advice makes sense. For one thing, most housekeeping tasks should also be keyboard-based.

 As an ‘occasional’ RSI sufferer I’m fully with you on the mouse issue, and have recommended on a couple of occasions to cut back on mouse usage. So I worry that with the above recommendation I might be making things worse. But while there are some great programs out there which can significantly cut down on mouse usage to do ‘housekeeping tasks’  — I can’t see any way of avoiding some tasks altogether. Or am I not thinking far ahead enough?

Another question that requires a longer answer than you can possibly use. Sometimes difficult problems don’t have answers that can be put into a pithy paragraph or two. The specs for just the text portions of THE run to over 40 pages, and in those pages are very specific answers to your questions. I don’t know about “ahead” but you are only beginning to think outside the restrictive GUI box. It’s hard to understand a new world when you’ve spent years in the old.

 Finally, leading on from that, what will the interface of the near future look like? What can people expect, and how can they help make that day arrive sooner? Are there any specific tips you could offer users who don’t want to wait for changes in their GUI?

In the near future, people will use today’s GUIs. Taking a longer term view, I hope that developers will read books, of which mine is but one example, about how people really interact with computers and other similar products instead of using the present half-facts or outright false beliefs about what makes an interface work. If I find the support and/or sufficient volunteers, I will get THE out into the world, and people will gradually move to it because it is significantly better.

I can’t help current GUI users; I search through my Windows for Dummies and Macs for Dummies type books and try to learn how to use them effectively, but they are so wrong from the getgo that there’s only so much a user can do to make them better.

Fixing Friends’ PCs

I don’t have a huge number of friends but those that do like me and trust me enough to ask me for computer help. That, or they are just too cheap to call a professional.

Part of the problem is, it’s horrible to try to fix someone’s computer over the phone. I get a headache just trying to talk someone through the menus, the options, the dialog boxes. It’s painful, and rarely successful. So they tend to think less of me at the end of it, which I wouldn’t mind so much but that their opinion of me was pretty low already (“You’re a technology columnist? What kind of job is that?”) . Even if they bring their computer around it’s usually something I can’t fix, or even figure out most of the time. If I do figure it out, they give me a hug and then promptly forget about it (or else tell all our other friends how hopelessly geeky I am because I fixed a computer.)

Another part of the problem of being a tech repair guy is you’ve got to know what questions to ask. It’s like being a doctor. It’s no good assuming your friend was doing something normal with the computer when it broke. I’ve learned that much. They were probably using it as a doorstop, trying to make bread with it, licking the screen, or trying to fold it where it shouldn’t be folded.

But of course they won’t tell you outright. Much too embarrassed that a) they were doing something that might have at best voided the warranty, at worst broken the law and b) their ignorance would be exposed by venturing any explanation. So you, as the doctor, have to ask the right questions, such as “What exactly did you touch when it went, as you describe it, ‘pflitz’?” One friend could only get certain keys on her brand new laptop to function, so I went through lots of complicated tests to establish which keys actually worked. (A diagonal line to the right from the E,R and T keys, if you must know.)

I played around with everything until it eventually occurred to me to ask whether she had spilt anything on the keyboard. “Yes, some water,” she said, innocently, as if it happened all the time (which it possibly did). “But I wiped it all off.” Aha. She needed a new keyboard. That took about an hour out of my life, and my entreaties to her to drink over the sink and not the laptop in future fell on deaf ears. Tip: If you’re fixing someone’s computer, ask them first, not just “what were you doing with your computer when it went ‘pflitz’?” but “what did you do and where did you go today?” Chances are you might get some clues about what really happened to the computer (including visits to the toilet, bathhouse, pub, Disney World, Mud Wrestling World Championships, whatever.)

And to my friends: Please feel free to call me with computer problems, but be honest. If you used it as a frisbee or as a curry plate, let me know. It really helps.

Another Incentive To Leave The Office

I’m a big fan of AlphaSmart’s range of portable writing devices, which are aimed at students but are good for anyone with itchy feet who does a lot of typing and needs a device with a good keyboard, screen and battery life.

After the Dana, the Dana Wireless and the AlphaSmart 3000, the company has just launched another model which takes the thing a step or two further: the Neo, which has the same full-size keyboard but tackles a shortcoming or two in it predecessors — screen size and memory.

The Neo now has a much larger screen than its predecessors and twice as much memory (512 KB, which doesn’t sound much, but is enough for “hundreds of pages of single-spaced text”. The Neo can communicate with both Macs and Windows and costs $250. Pricey, I guess, for something that’s just a word processor, but these devices have their place, and I’d argue that’s not just the classroom. You can take them on weekend trips for when the muse strikes, on flights when you can’t be bothered firing up a laptop, or even to company meetings to take notes when a PDA+keyboard is too fiddly and the laptop too intrusive.

More Timesaving Software

Here’s yet another piece of software that bears a vague resemblance to ActiveWords — besides its name, that is.

ActiveLaunch, from a company in Pskov, Russia, called GSI Software Research, allows you “the opportunity to faster [sic] open frequently used applications, documents, and folders using both the mouse and the keyboard.”

You can assign all those — or combinations thereof — to a single icon, or to a key. Whereas ActiveWords — and DoLittle, which I mentioned in an earlier post (sorry, folks, for the non-working link. Hopefully that will be fixed soon) focus on letting you type a command to launch a program, a command, or whatever, ActiveLaunch focuses on keys and keystroke combinations, something some folk might say is a step backwards, given our poor memories.

But having said that, I still have fond memories of WinKey, which tried to make more use of the Windows key to do something very similar. Given WinKey is free, whereas ActiveLaunch costs $15, I wonder how many takers the lads in Pskov are going to have. Still, worth a try.

News: Palm’s New Wireless Keyboard

 On the heels of its launch of fresh handhelds, Palm has launched some new accessories, including a wireless keyboard, multifunction stylus, six cases, a camera card, handheld device protection units and complete accessory kits.
 
According to UK PR firm M2 Communications the wireless keyboard lets users type using a QWERTY key layout without the need to connect the device to the main unit with wires. Pricing starts at GBP59.99. The stylus costs GBP9.99 and can be used as a writing pen, a laser pointer, a torch and a stylus.

News: Type Anywhere, On Anything

 From the This Really Could Be Funky Dept: iBIZ Technology Corporation has introduced its Virtual Laser Keyboard and has promised to start shipping the unit by November for $99.00. The Virtual Keyboard is an infrared device that projects the image of a keyboard onto any surface, allowing you to type straight into a PDA, a desktop, a laptop or a cell phone running Windows and Palm’s operating systems. See a picture here.

Column: AlphaSmarts

Loose Wire — Frustrated Writers, Take Note: This Palm-powered, plain-vanilla, word-producing machine has none of the bells and whistles of other computers and won’t break your back or the bank — meaning more time for haiku

By Jeremy Wagstaff from the 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I used to write a lot better before I got a computer. Really. The lethal combination of pen and paper ensured that I could write anywhere, anytime. Then, in 1986, I bought an Amstrad word processor and it’s been downhill ever since.

Nowadays I can’t focus on one program for more than five minutes, what with all the distractions: software notifying me of incoming e-mail, software notifying me that my incoming e-mail-to-spam ratio is 96.23%, software notifying me my last e-mail to Auntie Mildred has been read 12 hours and 46 minutes after it was sent, a chat message from an insomniac Australian friend, an alarm alerting me I need to pay rent, my firewall alerting me of yet another assault on my Internet defences. No wonder I never write haiku any more.

Computers are designed to do lots of things, and with graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, they’re designed to do them at the same time, jostling for room on your screen. That’s great if you’ve got tunnel vision, or are crashing up against deadline [like me right now]. Otherwise, all this extra processing power isn’t matched by any great multitasking ability in our brains. My message this week, therefore, is this: If you’re planning to write seriously, don’t use a computer. Use a Dana.

OK, for e-mails and memos to your vocabulary-challenged boss, you may not need monastic calm and a minimum of distractions. But computers, even notebooks, may not be your friend if you’re trying to compose something masterful and meaningful. Instead, you may want to check out AlphaSmart, a U.S.-based company, which realized early on that there was a market for something to write on without all the extra hullabaloo to distract you. The decade-old AlphaSmart series, now into its third generation with the 3000, has been popular with students, teachers and anyone else needing a decent keyboard and a usable screen that don’t break their back or the bank. They’re robust too: One reader describes on the company Web site [www.alphasmart.com] how her unit — stuck to the floor, and slightly melted — was the only electronic gadget still working after her house burned down.

The 3000 is about the size of a notebook, but looks more like a keyboard with a small LCD display on the top. Powered by three AA batteries, it delivers you to whatever you were writing before you turned it off [or had to flee the licking flames]. The four-line display is simple but shows just enough of what you’re doing without feeling cramped. The keyboard is full sized and there’s a USB socket for uploading files to your computer, and a socket to connect to a printer [or external keyboard, if you wish]. Grey keys line the top of the keyboard, allowing you to store and recall up to eight separate files. It’s the sort of thing a student would love, which is the market AlphaSmart has focused on, but it could just as easily work for you if you’re sick of sitting at a computer all day, or tired of firing up a laptop on a flight and watching the power die just as the Muse kicks in.

Late last year AlphaSmart took the concept one stage further with the Dana. The Dana does everything the 3000 does, only better. The screen is bigger at 10 lines to the 3000’s four, the keyboard’s nicer and the whole thing is a tad sleeker than its forbears. It also runs the Palm operating system, which brings with it plenty of advantages: For one thing, if you’re familiar with Palm, you’ll know your way around; for another, you can do everything a Palm device can do, such as swap Office documents with your computer, store contacts, calendars and whatnot. In fact, to some it could be just a bigger Palm device — most of the software is redesigned to fit a screen far wider than your hand-held — with a first-class keyboard attached. But that’s missing the point: The Dana is a word processor that uses the best Palm has to offer — compact, useful software, immediate access, configurable fonts, low power consumption — without trying to be too much else.

If you’re looking for something to write on during a trip to the country, the dentist or the restroom, and can’t be bothered to bring a laptop [or can’t afford one] then the Dana is an option. If you’re a writer and sick of the distractions of modern computing, the Dana is worth a look.

Gripes? A few. The monochrome screen is nice but looks a bit dated, especially the backlight. With a list price of $400 it’s substantially cheaper than a laptop or notebook, but not that much cheaper than a state of the art, full-colour hand-held device. [Shell out another $75 and you have a foldable keyboard which fits in your pocket.] And without a cover or clamshell, some reviewers have rightly suggested the screen might easily get scratched.

But these are minor niggles. I’m seriously thinking about getting one for my inspirational visits to the hills where a laptop is too much, and the miserly screen of my Palm Tungsten not quite enough. Might even try some haiku.