The desktop metaphor is, like, so five minutes ago

Update: this was written before I ever touched an iPhone or iPad. These devices are major improvements over the desktop metaphor GUIs I complain about below.

When you grow up playing video games, like I did, the primitiveness of office software user interface design comes as a shock. The desktop metaphor was a brilliant stroke back in 1970 when they thought it up at Xerox PARC, but I feel like it has outlived its usefulness.

User interfaces are the first and most immediate form of computer instruction, and for many people the only instruction they ever receive. Not every interface designer teaches their own products equally well. The problems mostly emerge from designers’ presuming implicit knowledge from the user that might not really be there. There are plenty of computer science concepts that are common knowledge to programmers and engineers, but that are esoteric or totally opaque to the population at large. For example, the general public uses the terms memory and storage interchangeably, even though they refer to different computer components that function in very different ways. Most normal people don’t have mental models of a computer program’s inner workings, and rely entirely on the interface to provide the model.

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The Minus World and the Blue Screen Of Death

When the computer crashes, it seems like it’s frozen. Actually, it’s still working as fast as usual. It only appears to be stuck because it isn’t responding to you. The computer is too busy to take input because it’s in a loop, executing the same short list of instructions over and over.

Computers have become so fast that you can’t see what they’re doing on an instruction-by-instruction basis, so it’s hard to get a feel for what’s going on in a looping failure.  Fortunately, Super Mario Bros has a famous bug known as the Minus World that lets you study an infinite loop in an entertainingly interactive form. Continue reading