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Computing’s fundamental Principle of No Learning

I haven’t used Taligent’s frameworks or operating systems directly; what I know of it comes from their documentation and the book Inside Taligent Technology. I put some small effort into finding out whether it’s possible to use the Taligent system legitimately on a modern computer, couldn’t find a way, and didn’t get too sad about that.

The Taligent frameworks look – assuming they were ever as complete as the documentation promised – like fairly standard 1990s OOP-in-C++ which almost certainly makes them less fun to use than modern Qt. What I got from considering Taligent was a reflection on trends in modern computing platforms, that discoverability is killing power user features, and the app icon is killing complex workflows.

There is a false dichotomy at work in modern app design: the drive is for apps to be so simple you can use them as soon as you’ve tapped the app icon, but this is taken to mean that there doesn’t need to be anything more to do in the app than what you can see when you have tapped the app icon. As an example, the bookmark manager app on my iPad shows me a list of my bookmarks, and there’s an “add” button. If I click on a bookmark, I can view it. That’s it. That’s “managing” bookmarks, app-style.

But I would suggest it’s not just the apps that are doing it, it’s the platforms too, and that’s how Taligent entered this story. Their central desktop metaphor was called People, Places, and Things, based on the idea that I might want to focus on those things mediated by a computer, rather than on applications that support particular use cases.

A particular example of the People metaphor is that I might want to show a photo of my cat to my sister. Back in the days of the real world, I would do that by showing the photo of my cat to my sister. In the brave new world of the app, I look at my phone to see what messaging apps I have, try to remember which ones I have her as a contact on, which ones she will actually check, whether they send pictures and if so, what that costs or how it futzes with the picture. I launch that, go to the conversation with her (or start one), add an attachment, try to think about whether this needs to be a Camera, Gallery or File attachment, and so on. This is made most painful when using the in-car voice UI on my smartphone, which seems able to transcribe messages well but unable to listen when it asks what app I want it to use to send the message. Like I care, cost and picture-futzing aside (though I’m not usually taking photos with the in-car voice UI).

The Places metaphor is particularly interesting. Each “place” is a virtual gallery, town hall, office lobby, project office, or whatever that contextualises a given group of People and Things relevant to the place. In implementation, it’s a sort of context-sensitive desktop management. In concept, it makes me think of the PARC Ubiquitous Computing principle and how a location-sensitive computing environment could adapt as I sit at my desk, join some colleagues in a meeting room, or collapse on a beanbag at home. It makes me think of the Eudaimonia machine and how a context-sensitive computing interface could support shallow-and-broad to narrow-and-deep work environments. Then I consider how the static home screen on my smartphone…does not do those things.

An important part, I believe, in the downfall of People, Places and Things is what it means for software. Rather than buying “an application” from a vendor that shows me their beautiful, crafted icon until I’m ready to launch it, I buy a capability that extends the ways in which I can interact with the People, Places and Things represented on my computer. My computer does not become Photoshop, rather I gain Photoshopness by adding it to my computer.

It seems that any shift from app-centric to goal-centric computer interfaces – PPT, OpenDoc/OLE, NeXT Services, scripting/automation tools, the spatial desktop – is going to violate the Fundamental Paradox of App Marketing: my app is so intuitive and easy to use that it just fades into the backdrop of your life, however it must never fade so far that you do not see its name or its icon, and are not reminded who we are and how much we help you.

Similarly, they violate the Principle of No Learning discussed above: I must be able to see how to do everything, and I must only be able to do everything that can be seen. The desktop metaphor allows for spatial arrangement of your work, just like strewing papers around a real desktop, but you need to work out what those funny line-and-square icons mean and which bits of the window frame are draggable, so that goes. Drag-and-drop makes for a visual placement metaphor letting me “put” work from one document into another, but you can’t obviously see that it’s a thing (nor indeed what it will actually achieve; Drag and Drop seems intuitively destructive, sometimes is, but sometimes surprisingly isn’t. What’s the metaphorical outcome expected when you try to put your Hackers DVD in the Trash?). Therefore drag-and-drop is replaced with “Share Sheets”. Scripting not only requires learning a new application – the script editor – but a whole new user interface for existing applications. Forget it.

The Paradox of App Marketing is merely misguided self-aggrandisement, but the Principle of No Learning is one of computing’s big, stultifying, patronising, antiethical mistakes. It makes out that computers are simplistic tools that can do the things delivered unto the users by the app makers, and nothing else. It hides the magic behind the curtain by removing the curtain and the magic.

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