SXSW 2007: The Death of the Desktop

Aza Raskin (Humanized)

Not using his computer with the desktop running. So then how do I actually get to applications?

There are certain fundamental truths about how people work: it’s called cognetics. And they apply to interfaces. If you design against human frailties, your interface won’t work very well.

Cognetics: the ergonomics of the brain. Magical number 7 rule. Can’t actively think about more than one thing at a time. Etc.

If you don’t do this, you are asking users to push two buttons ten feet apart.

Forgotten Tools:

GOMs modeling: how long it takes the average user to use an interface.

Information efficiency: how much information you put in vs. what is minimally needed.

The death of the desktop is near. Why? Is this a good thing?

What is an interface? The way that you accomplish tasks with a product–what you do and how it responds. The interface is the product (to the user). A beautiful back-end isn’t useful for people without the interface. Don’t focus on the technology, not the user.

Keep simple things simple. A litmus test: how long the manual is. If it is difficult to explain how to use your interface, there is something wrong. When you set out to make an interface, write the manual first.

The problem is that applications are like isolated cities. Computing models could be different. There is a lot of overlap (waste) between applications. We get a lot of system bloat this way. You have to keep learning basic applications again and again. This is a fundamental problem with applications–they want to hoard functionality.

What does an interface do?

Create content (typing)

Navigate content

Select content

Transform content

(Share content?)

When designing, always return to these fundamental building blocks.

Raskin’s Rules of Interfaces:

1. An interface shall not harm your content or through inaction allow your content to come to harm.

2. An interface shall not waste your time or require you to do more work than is strictly necessary.

3. An interface shall not allow itself to get into a state where it cannot manipulate content.

Content is Everything. You always acting upon some content.

What dooms the desktop? It’s not about content. The desktop is a flawed metaphor to start with.

What does a desktop do?

Let’s you get your computer into state where you can enter content. Let’s you categorize your content. Let’s you navigate your content.

There are better, faster, more humane ways. The web is treasure trove of examples.

Language has an untapped power. This is the future. It lets you describe things very quickly and very succinctly. If you can just type what you want, it works better.

Command line interfaces: great way to enter commands. URL bar can be a form of a command line.

The death of forced hierarchy. Tags don’t force a hierarchy on users. Desktop needs to learn this lesson. We don’t need to think the way our hard drive does. Going up and down trees isn’t good. You also just need a really good search.

Navigation: Let content be content. Let search be search. Let 2D content be 2D content. Let the user’s structure be.

The web as a maze: you go through a door and you can’t see where you came from.

People don’t work well in 3D, so don’t force them too.

The desktop of the future is a zooming interface where you could put content wherever you want (not forced). Things are related geographically. It’s visceral. Easy to navigate.

The desktop is doomed. Why the stagnation? The toolkit straightjacket. Programmers are writing for users, but don’t want to interact with users. The people who write toolkits are one step removed from that. The system makes making mediocre interfaces easy. This is why the web matters. But it is dangerous to make the web like the desktop. We’re free to make something better. And you cannot be better without being different. We have a unique opportunity to step away from the desktop. We can invent new paradigms.

How can we overcome applications? Services and Universal Access Interface. How do we get all these Ajax apps to work together?

Design the big picture: think above the apps.

2 thoughts on “SXSW 2007: The Death of the Desktop

  1. “People don’t work well in 3D, so don’t force them too.”
    People work quite well in 3D, have done for quite some time now. People dont work well in 3d metaphors planted on a 2d display. This will change when input devices evolve. Until then – yes!- use the primary input device with the widest band, suited to users over the curve, the keyboard, the CLI.

  2. Hi Dan,
    It sounds like Aza Raskin’s presentation was a good one – I can see bits of “The Humane Interface” throughout your notes.
    Question (not criticism) – are you going to convert these notes from mobloggerese into a full-on report? If not, no big deal, I am just looking for the easy alternative to doing it myself 🙂
    Cheers, Andrew

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