Apr 01

MC Rebbe presents his  monthly editorial in The Technofile, you one stop shop for music, photography, film, DJ, VJ and animation technologyBack in the day, when (IBM compatible) PCs were ugly, geeky, techy boxes that couldn’t do much, Bill Gates was still just an aspiring megalomaniac and Michael Jackson was still black, Apple were thinking ‘different’ by shipping a computer that, thanks to its user friendly graphic user interface didn’t require you to have a degree in mathematics.

The Macintosh as it was known at the time, was a project originally created by Apple’s 31st employee, Jeff Raskin. After falling out with Steve Jobs, he left the company before the first Mac was ever shipped, eventually going on to write an influential book called ‘The Humane Interface’. Raskin passed away at the end of February and now he’s interfacing with god, but his legacy lives on. Not just in the shape of ‘Archy’, the operating system he was developing, but in his vision of a user interface that is ‘natural’ to use.

But Raskin never went far enough. It’s not just about the OS, but about the usability of the software that runs on it and now that everything from cameras to sandwiches are going digital, what’s equally important is the usability of these ‘stand alone’ devices and how they interface with your ‘digital hub’ (something that Apple realised without Raskin’s help…). After all, how many people would eat one of the new digital sandwiches if doing so required them to first read a 1000 page ‘Digital Sandwich Bible’? The simple fact is that I don’t need to know how my digestive system works in order to eat a sandwich (be it digital or analogue). If I did, I would have become a doctor instead of a rabbi (which would have made my mother a lot happier). Nor do I need to know how to make a sandwich…that’s what my mother is there for… I just open my mouth, chew and swallow…it’s a Jewish thing…

So why aren’t things that easy with computers? Why can’t I simply tell a computer to give me a walking bass line in the key of D minor (it’s the saddest key) over a 3 / 4 drumbeat…or to generate a 3D model of a person using the sort of statistics and characteristics that I might use to describe someone in everyday conversation…and I think you know the sort of statistics I mean…?

The fact is that as computers get more powerful, instead of becoming simpler to use, they are becoming more complex and at this rate, it won’t be long before computers become so complex that they will be able to do anything you can imagine…but you won’t be able to imagine how to do anything with them…

The problem is that programmers are thinking like programmers, instead of thinking like the creatives who will have to use their end product. If you want to build a better interface, find out how creatives work, then build your software and hardware around their paradigms, instead of expecting them to have to learn yours. Create a photo editing application that works the way a photographer would work in a darkroom. Create a music making package that works the way a musician or producer would work in a studio.

Some manufacturers are getting the message. But while manual controls are being added to ‘prosumer’ video cameras, they are being removed from digital stills cameras (how quickly and easily can you change the ISO or white balance, or exposure compensation on yours?).

People want intuitive interfaces and what makes something intuitive is that it conforms to an existing paradigm, which means knobs and buttons where you expect them to be and clear straightforward software that doesn’t bury important functionality under 5 levels of sub menu only accessible by 18 mouse clicks…or one of several hundred impossible to remember keyboard ‘shortcuts’…

Around the same time that Apple released the Mac, Yamaha released the DX7 synthesizer, which used a completely ‘new’ method of synthesis, that required a degree in mathematics to understand, had everything buried in menus and which lacked any knobs at all. It almost single-handedly killed electronic music overnight. Manufacturers would do well to learn from Yamaha’s mistakes!

…and now that this month’s Rebbetorial is over, I’m off for one of those new digital sandwiches…I’d better hurry though, I hear they are only available before midday…

MC Rebbe

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