Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bring on the New Magic

Fill in this blank: A computer desktop is to a real desktop like a Google search is to ________?

It’s hard because the computer desktop metaphor was meant to be literally like a real-world desktop, with files arranged into folders and such. By contrast, we have nothing in the real world like the modern Internet search experience, with its single-line interface that returns answers to seemingly everything.

Why does this distinction matter? Think of how the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface changed computing, and now consider that it’s happening again. Increasingly, what people do with computers is straining and, in some respects, bypassing the desktop metaphor. For example, when you start your computer, how often do you open folders and files versus going straight to a Web browser? And in that Web browser, how often do you immediately do a search?

I bring this up because Tim Oren recently raised these issues, referencing Randy Smith’s idea of the tension between “literalism” and “magic” in user interfaces:

The original desktop design leaned in the direction of literalism. While the allusion to reality was never pure (trashcans on desktops?) the generally one-to-one correspondence between user action and resulting change inside the system put it squarely into the direct manipulation class of literalist designs. This literalism is also a large cause of the failure of the desktop design to scale, as the user is responsible for acting to create and maintain useful organization of ever-growing collections of information. Contrast the wildly successful - and almost completely ‘magical’ - interface of Google. There is no real world act equivalent to typing a few words and receiving in return lists of information from any place in the global Web....The overwhelming acceptance by end users of an interface devoid of literalist elements is a quiet and widely overlooked revolution of the last decade, and its implications are largely unexplored.

I agree, and it will only accelerate as the distinction between what’s on your computer versus what’s on the Internet becomes less meaningful. Much of what used to reside on my computer’s hard disk now resides in the Internet “cloud” on various services. And for the stuff that stays on my computer, desktop search (ironically, often accessed via a Web browser toolbar) is increasingly an alternative to navigating through folders and files.

Yet the traditional Google search only solves a certain class of problems, especially those where you know what you’re looking for. What other “magical” approaches are there to the things Google doesn’t do? It’s like asking, circa 1985, what else can you do with a graphical user interface other than help people run an operating system?

Finally, this topic is not just about computers as traditionally defined. For example, the literalist approach to a TV user interface—the scrolling-grid “electronic program guide”—gets evermore useless as choice expands. If you think it’s bad scrolling through 500 channels of cable offerings, how about “all video on the Internet”?

So, as Tim says, the literalism/magic angle is an interesting one for considering a change that’s afoot—in what we do, and how we do it—with things digital. Bring on the new magic!

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