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A Response to Norman & Nielson (Interactions Magazine, October 2010)

. wandereye

Gestural Interfaces: A Step Backward in Usability
by Donald Norman and Jakob Nielson

I find the article I just read in Interactions Magazine offensive, if not an example of the ignorance that has held interactive multimedia back for at least 15 or more years:

in the rush to develop gestural (or "natural") interfaces, well-tested and understood standards of interaction design were being overthrown.

If either of the writers would get out of their one-way mirrored focus group "labs" and actually do primary ethnographic observation, much less embrace the revolutions that are happening technology-and-business-wise in the real world (like "Design Thinking"), they would realize that the desktop metaphor is a dead horse we are forced to beat with a mouse and keyboard, that they are antiquated examples of completely non-sustainable and non-scalable interaction "modalities". I can't tell you how much of my design career has been spent working on seemingly "radical" concepts that were shelved in favor of that all-to-familiar personally subjective knee-jerk reaction to something outside the boxes of limited thinking and fear of the new or unprecidented. See the RAZR for example or the iPhone, the cell phone in general, the automobile ("faster horse" would have come out of "HCI" research methods like articulated survey responses and focus groups).

Throughout my career, I had the privilage of working on things that were deemed "too advanced" for the general public (because there were no precidents in the market) and killed before they saw the light of day. I quickly learned that the best reaction from the "stakeholders" when innovating was "WTF!?" because I knew it was something that took these people well outside their comfort zones. Those companies have gone into some seriously painful times as I type this, realizing (too late) that they should have taken some chances in the market and listened to the people with their ears to the ground, who live, breathe and eat design thinking on a 24/7 basis; much less the "end-users" who would have to incorporate these technologies, services, and products into their daily routines. 

But the place for such experimentation is in the lab. After all, most new ideas fail, and the more radically they depart from previous best prectices, the more likely they are to fail.

This "HCI" stuff Norman/Nielson cite as gospel is a true example of analytical thinking, data-based engineering, testing that quantifies then qualifies ignorance and limited thinking done in the "lab" as opposed to contextually in the field through "validation." Again, we are not in the age of "technological evolution" but "technological revolution". They are bloody and leave in their wake the obsolete thinkings of "leaders" who hold humanity back in favor of their personal need for predictability and structure. Again, having worked from many perspectives in the design industry, from products to services to education, I cringe when someone comes into a meeting where innovation is supposed to take place citing some Nielson/Norman study about how this "button" should be "here" because "x% of users"... Discussions killed in this way ruin human potential. The "lab" is for "rats". The "lab" should be our world of experience. Hence, life is the lab. Humans are not rats when it comes to how we live and interact with each other and the world around us.

Most progress is made through small and sustained incremental steps.

Since when has any "game changing" innovation been made through "sustained and incremental steps"? Inventions? The iPad? I guess you could say they were incremental in the sense that they have been held back since long before the Xerox Parc days by people who were too scared to take a chance, to fail. Hence the design thinking tact: fail often and fail early. And learn. Or keep it all in the "lab" and release tiny portions of brilliance in favor of maintaining some safe growth position in the books and charts. Meanwhile, short-stick the user, the customer, the human being and ruin growth potential for your organization (differentiation, advantage, unique or core selling point offerings, marketing 101, competition, value to the humans who honor you with their consumption and use of your production...).

The truth is that we actually have more evidence through seeing these "radical new" products come to market (I mean, seriously! In 1997 ubiquity was around the corner and we're still not there yet) now after being locked up in the "lab" for far too long. I can see the safe thinking they employ and profess being useful in high liability contexts like healthcare or voting, where risk to a human is high. But social networking? Gaming? Entertainment? Shopping? Anyone who has lived in Asia or Southeast Asia, travelled to Europe, has seen the future (or the now) that America seems to have ignored for decades.

Why is 3D movie making the "cool thing" again? Why do Hollywood movies seem to be bland, to be safe, to suck? Why do they remake remakes and churn artistically devoid fodder? Um... Let me take a guess: they're based on demographically targeted planning algorythms as opposed to real thinking about empathic connection with real human beings who have emotions and feel through primary experience. Like the book "The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage" by Roger Marin said: "It's like driving forward while looking in your rear view mirror." It's not wrong to look (glance from time to time) in the rear view mirror—one benefits from a 360º view of the situation while driving. But it is wrong to look solely in the rear-view mirror while driving forward, while ignoring the left and right, up and down, for example. And some cars don't have rear view mirrors anymore (like the "image map" quip they inserted to sound like industry old-hats). Some cars can park themselves now. Some can even drive themselves now. How do those offerings and behaviors make the existing principals and standards completely obsolete?

These "funamental principles of interaction design" are pitfalls 9 out of 10 times (I've studied this through living through it). Ignore them or question them religiously and think about context over prescription. More antiquated thinking:

Discoverability: All operations can be dicovered by systematic exploration of menus.

Scalability: The operation should work on all screen sizes, small and large.

Have they read "Mobile Web Design" by Cameron Moll? Have they studied the "experts" in other fields who think about the role context plays in interaction, who study humans as humans and not "nodes" (see Elizabeth Churchill's article "The (Anti)Social Net" in the same publication)? "Menus"? One size fits all? Hence my problem with "HCI" as a relevant approach in this age. It has a place, don't get me wrong (i.e. Engineering, backend, technology; not primary research and not innovation)...

These people remind me of some of the organizations I have worked with and for in the past who laughed hysterically at some ideas or predictions of the future I live with now: like a phone that feels more like playing a game than a tool, like gestures and mind control over pointing devices and some metaphor some nerd applied to something so infinitely free no one can define it: human interaction and rapport. 

Stop being safe. Stop listening to these "statistics" and "fundamental principles" and consider the sources, intent and agendas from which they come. They are based on visions of objects much closer than they appear in the rear view mirror, based on older ways of looking at the world that don't really apply anymore. They are like the slow drivers in the left lane. You want to honk at them and wonder how they are still allowed to drive on your road. Then you pass them and realize they are simply oblivious and/or old, drunk, dumb, incompetent, angry... And you fogive them, pass them and breathe a sigh of relief you are no longer at their mercy in terms of time abuse. Explore, inquire, absorb, apply and be human. We're imperfect and standards seldom apply when consciousness is involved.


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