View Full Version : The Problem with Upcoming Interface Paradigms

Recently I have been noticing that I dislike many of the changes that have been made to the way we interact with computers, including many parts of Windows 8, the Windows 7 "superbar", and Apple's general insistence on eliminating the file system. After thinking about it for some time I realized they all have something in common: they represent a fundamental change in the way we are expected to interact with computers from data centric to "app" centric. To illustrate this point I must begin at the beginning. With the command line one navigates to a folder in order to perform various actions on files (data) contained in that folder. Very few programs (that don't launch a GUI) are any use without one or more file arguments, the purpose is to manipulate data by reading it, editing it, copying it, compiling it, crunching it, or some other similar operation. For a long time visual operating systems operated in much the same way much of the time, one would open a folder (in explorer, finder, what have you) and proceed to click on files which would then open in the default application, in some ways even more file centric than the command line where the program name still must be provided. Right click-> create new allows this to continue even when the file does not yet exist. While applications that operate only on their own data became more prevalent, and a direct way to launch them was necessary, this was not intended to be the primary way to interact with the computer. The author of the article about the new Windows 8 interface (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/b8/archive/2012/05/18/creating-the-windows-8-user-experience.aspx) said "It is interesting to consider how odd it is that we trained ourselves to look one place for a program the first time it is running, and a different place once it is already running" which would make sense if programs operated in a vacuum, but they do not. The tabs on the taskbar first and foremost represented DATA that was¬ open not the program it was open in. One does not expect data currently being worked with to be in the same place as data that is put away. Financial papers, for instance,¬ spend most of their time in a filing cabinet but sit on one's desk come tax day, even if a particular paper is not being worked on at any given time. I have thus far been using the terms data and files interchangeably but one of the best examples of programs taking a back seat to data is the browser. There are many browsers one could use to access any given website (data) but the experience would be essentially the same, the application itself is almost entirely unimportant.
This brings me to the first of the interface elements I specifically mentioned, the Windows 7 superbar. The superbar (by default) does not show me separate tabs representing the data I have open in different windows (by their labels which are hidden), but instead shows me nothing but a single icon representing the program. It does the same thing when I have several instances of Word or notepad++ open where WHAT is open in infinitely more important that HOW it's open. Even worse it makes no distinction between the command window and figures in Matlab or between the root window of a chat program and the windows containing chats with particular people. The fact that I am using Pidgin in not interesting, that I am talking to Sean is. (I am extending the definition of data to include interactions with people in the same way hardware is a "file" on a POSIX system) Obviously this in not true for all programs but representing those that stand alone in the same way does not have a significant impact on their usability. Not only are the data being pushed to the background, but Apple has specifically stated its intention to push the file system out of the consciousness of the average user completely. Microsoft is doing something similar by not having a file browser of any kind in the Metro interface, which they intend you to never have to leave. While abstracting the file system makes a certain amount of sense on mobile devices, it is disastrous on a desktop computer.The way all of these devices handle data is for it to be "owned" by a particular program. This causes three problems: sometimes the data can be lost if the application is changed removed etc., often the same data needs to be accessed from different programs making ownership clunky, and most importantly it often doesn't make any sense. Pictures of the damage to my car from ¬when a tree fell on it ¬should be with the associated insurance paperwork, not with pictures fro¬m my business trip which should, in turn, be with reimbursement paperwork and meeting notes, not pictures of my sister's cat. Forcing people into this new paradigm for everything makes no more sense than requiring a program like Skype or PuTTY to have a file input in order to open it.
The simultaneously best and worst thing about windows is that there are always at least three unique ways to skin a cat, offering the advanced user the opportunity to find what works best for him/her whilst causing confusion for the proletariat. Why then should we have no choice but to operate our computers this way whether or not it makes sense in a given application? This is but one example of computing devices now being designed for the absolute lowest common denominator, others including curated app stores with limited ability to sideload and Windows 8's unnecessarily unpleasant to use desktop*. Many people seem to be assuming that the simplified user interfaces of mobile devices are what make them popular, but I believe there is significant reason to believe they are popular because they are mobile and people are willing to put up with these limitations because a more complicated system would be neigh impossible to implement on such a device in a satisfactory way. If we continue along this path we risk consumer computing returning to simple single task machines, or worse glorified toys even for those who know how to use them better.

*Before I get 8000 comments telling me to actually try it, I have, it's bad**, and the various "alternatives" (read workarounds) you might¬ suggest to a proper start menu are not going to be acceptable to people for whom the start menu is the preferred method of doing things - again choices are what make Windows great.
**Seriously who's idea was it for there to be nowhere to put links to applications I don't actually use (uninstallers for instance) to keep them from cluttering up the start screen? That is what makes start search so powerful, All Programs is nothing but clutter but I don't care because I never have to look at it.
***Edited because apparently people are incapable of reading something if it hasn't been broken down into bite sized chunks

Please, break your post up into paragraphs. I’m begging you.

Seriously. I’m sure it’s well written and all, if it wasn’t impossible to read.

I did the reading, and came up with this simplified version:
I. It used to be data first, program second (like music file opens in ____, not open ____ to listen to music)
II. Now, folks like Apple and Microsoft want to get rid of the file system to focus on apps.
III. Potential problems:
A. Sometimes data can be lost between apps
B. Ownership of the data is split between apps
C. It doesn’t make sense & we’re forcing people into this
IV. Conclusion: People don’t want a simplified user interface, they will just put it with it. We are heading towards single task machines & glorified toys, when we have the intelligence to do much more.
1. Tried Windows 8 and didn’t like it.
2. Expect 8000 comments on this article.
3. Windows 8 start screen is bad.

I agree that the direction we’re headed with file system is different, and there’s no denying it. But I honestly prefer the fact that apps are the “face” of my data. I really don’t care about the file as long as I can find it in the app.