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A Response: Natural User Interfaces Are Not Natural

. wandereye

"I believe we will look back on 2010 as the year we expanded beyond the mouse and keyboard and started incorporating more natural forms of interaction such as touch, speech, gestures, handwriting, and vision--what computer scientists call the "NUI" or natural user interface."
— Steve Ballmer, CEO Microsoft

That would be an awesome quote were it not for the FACT that all of this NUI stuff was around at Xerox Parc over 20 years ago (as Norman mentions). What is astounding is how slow culture, both in and outside of business, has slowed in terms of evolution while technology steadily increases velocity in terms of evolution (Moore's Law is now wrong, we're at a pace exponentially faster according to people in the know). Why is it taking so long to make GUI's (NUI's) that match the technology progression? My theory is that this stuff is "new" in the sense that it takes time to incorporate it all into the contexts of our lives, that disruptive innovation introductions to the market, even for "early adopters" has increased to a level of overwhelming for even the most spastic of embrace (myself included). As we're in an economy of choice as opposed to pure scale and demand fulfillment, even innovation seems to be a product category calling for discerning consumption.

Don writes: 
"As usual, the rhetoric is ahead of reality... Fundamental principles of knowledge of results, feedback, and a good conceptual model still rule. The strength of the graphical user interface (GUI) has little to do with its use of graphics: it has to do with the ease of remembering actions, both in what actions are possible and how to invoke them... The important design rule of a GUI is visibility: through the menus, all possible actions can be made visible and, therefore, easily discoverable."
Menus and the vernaculars he and many people rely on (AKA "patterns" and/or "standards") are direct responses to the constraints inherent in the systems (metaphors, proprietary hardware...) that they service. The "desktop" metaphor has been ripped to shreds and proven to be a culturally-biased manifestation of a group of highly insular engineers; much less detrimental to the development of operating systems that are truly cross-cultural and/or flexible enough to be usable in many contexts. That this metaphor has hurt the industry more than helped it in terms of innovation (see "In the Beginning was the Command Line", an essay by Neil Stevenson). Standards are good... For programming and system-level platform architecture... For sanity... For stability. But standards are often static and mistaken as gospel as opposed to dynamic sets of frameworks driven by the evolution of the marketplace and the demands therein; not to mention context, that human reality. When Norman makes statements like "Systems that avoid these well-known methods suffer," I get angry because statements like that are blatant examples of how ignorant designers can be at times (i.e. generalizing without taking the time to think about the complexities of interactions, the concept of empathic response and emergent technologies). In other words, systems that avoid usable and appropriate (to the user AND the business) methods suffer. Experiences and interfaces should respond to the demands of the content they are trying to service and provide to end users. For example the unique facets of products or services should drive a designer to explore the best "vehicles" through which to drive a particular path down the information superhighway. When we live within our comfort zones in the name of stability and sanity, we miss out, we suffer through a stagnation of evolution culturally, physically, cognitively and socially (human factors, user-centered frameworks). And if you want to speak to "affordances", Norman should perhaps look at advertising agencies or advertising in an of itself, the approaches that speak to the "unique selling points" of products or services as a driver for campain messaging and positioning. The same applies to GUI or NUI: an interaction is a form of exchange, of rapport. There are many many things going on outside of a pure form or system level analysis.
"Because gestures are ephemeral, they do not leave behind any record of their path, which means that if one makes a gesture and either gets no response or the wrong response, there is little information available to help understand why."
Not all contexts are universal. Anthropometrics can apply to two dimensional realities in the form of feedback from input, indication, understanding, response... There are many layers to the arguments Don positions that are ignored in favor of some call to convergence and standardization of thinking in a realm that suffers greatly from any algorythm-based application of solutions without thinking about the problem itself and the humans benefitting from the solution(s). What he speaks of here is handled by the display, the response of the system and not entirely dependent on the mode of input, be it gestural or keyboard, etc. I get the sense that because the keyboard and mouse have been around longer in a consumer context, Norman will find no fault in their use citing "standards". As Jaron Lanier states clearly, we should be extremely angry at the lack of progression of these systems, how we are extremely tolerant of shortcommings, how we alter behavior, much of the time dumbing it down, to facilitate the limitations of systems that should be much more functional.

Norman goes onto talk about standardization of gestures, etc. I assume he's dipping into his "affordances" misinterpretation at that point (or ignoring his own philosophies about that entirely). I mean, non-verbal communications, surfaces of inscription, modes of channel-based communications, have been studied as disciplines for decades prior to the invention of the PC. It scares me to see this foundational knowledge ignored by a so-called "expert" in the field. Going back further, Plato's The Cave would be a great read at this point. It seems that human perception, if not human experience is abandoned in favor of a full-out rant against a disruptive market release (because it calls into question many of his "standards" based on his interpretation of interaction and technology as well as a very obvious need to gain marketshare as an expert in this realm by speaking to the anxieties of his constituency - mostly business and mostly people who work with user experience professionals as opposed to practice it on a daily basis).

As a "design historian" he should also be in touch with what the futurists are predicting, some of which is already here like physical feedback mechanisms triggered by neuro stimulation or holography (3D) or interactions which combine multiple input methods and models like voice/sound as a gesture that influences touch in combination with keyboard or key. Multi-combination input is central to gaming. Mapping new commands to actions is commonplace as a learning curve in many realms, even in non-expert user interfaces. Again, generalizing is appropriate in some cases. These generalizations, assumptions and supposedly credible insights about multi-touch and gestural UI are a tremendous disservice to the design community. Then again, looking through the prism of our current technology and how slowly it is catching up to what he called rhetoric ahead of reality, it's understandable to latch onto what is comfortable and requires little effort and expertise to explain or explore or extend.


At 6/03/2010 09:30:00 AM, Blogger wandereye said...

In hindsight, what I was referring to when referencing Norman's "standards", is something Jay Wolke spoke to me about while studying photography at ID/IIT: when you apply formulas to contexts in photography you are not utilizing standards but working your way into a hole that risks missing out on opportunity. Therefore, formulas are bad if applied without knowledge and understanding of context. What I see in the industry with Norman's standards is formulaic application and citation which I feel is a disservice to the possibilities inherent in the medium in which we operate (the internet, interactive systems).


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