Chris McLay.

Interaction designer and user experience consultant.

The Humane Interface, Jef Raskin

thehumaneinterface-coversmaRaskin, Jef. The Humane Interface: new directions for designing interactive systems. Stoughton: Addison Wesley, 2000

By many, Jef Raskin, is believed to be the creator or inventor of the Macintosh computer, and while he did father the project inside Apple, he left a long time prior to it’s eventual release and has been a heavy critic and opponent of Apple and their products ever since. It seems to be one of the longest love-hate relationships in the industry, and it comes across as very personal. Even in this text, which was written at least 15 years later, Jef shows a strong personal antagonism towards Apple and it’s products.

It is this constant personal critique, which is almost whinging in places, which in my mind really lets this book down. Especially when the few positive critiques are almost exclusively for Jef’s other products such as the Cannon Cat. I don’t really have an issue with the use of projects which Jef has been involved in, but there is little or no distance shown in this book and this makes many of the ideas and concepts presented difficult to take seriously.

If you can get past this then the book has some excellent coverage of the issues facing computer users, and the designers of such systems. I feel this is where the book is most valuable. The solutions and interfaces presented by Jef to get around these issues, feel clunky and too focused on avoiding one or two key issues raised. I’m not convinced they are always significantly better than some existing solutions, but they certainly make interesting reading and are cause for considerable thought.

Chapter 1. Background
This provides some basic definitions and introductions to the concepts involved in human computer interaction. One key point is the distinction between user-interfaces and human-interfaces. Raskin suggests experts have forgotten that users are human, and that humans have physical, and more importantly psychological limitations. It is these psychological limitations and competencies that seem to be the main driver behind much of this book.

A few interesting quotes from this chapter:

The first law of interface design should be: A computer shall not harm your work or, through inaction, allow your work to come to harm. (p. 6)

For a second interface law… A computer shall not waste your time or require you to do more work than is strictly necessary (p. 6)

And a final definition of a humane interface:

An interface is humane if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. (p. 6)

Chapter 2. Cognetics and the Locus of Attention
This chapter is all about the limitations of human kind and how these effect how humans can work with machines and their interfaces. Raskin defines cognetics as “The study of the applicable, engineering scope of our mental abilities,” in contrast to ergonomics which is the study of our physical engineering. (p. 10) The most important aspect of this area is the locus of attention which “is a feature or object in the physical world or an idea about which you are intently or actively thinking.” We can only have one locus of attention and this is something that is both a hazard and a tool for interface designers. (p. 17, 24) This chapter also covers areas of conscious and unconscious thoughts, formation of habits and automatic behaviours and their dangers in user interface design.

Chapter 3. Meanings, Modes, Monotony, and Myths
Modes are the main subject of this chapter and, it would appear, that modes are what kept Raskin awake most at night. Raskin defines modes very broadly in terms of gestures: if the result of a gesture is constant then the there is one mode, if the gesture produces a different result then the mode has been changed. Two examples are given: typing return in one mode will move the cursor to a new line, in another mode it will execute a command previously typed; a working push button flashlight has two modes, if the light is on pushing the button turns it off, if the light is off the button turns it on. (p. 37)

Taking this to the user interface:

A human-machine interface is modal with respect to a given gesture when (1) the current state of the interface is not the user’s locus of attention and (2) the interface will execute one among several different possible responses to the gesture, depending on the system’s current state.

For an interface as a whole to be classified as not modal, it must not be modal for any gesture. (p. 42)

This is one of Raskin’s main aims for a humane interface, that it be entirely mode free. He even goes as far as to argue that different applications should not exist, but the computers interface as a whole should be unified into one mode. I think this is a grand goal and one worthy of some investigation, but I found the examples provided to almost be more complex than the issue they were avoiding, and in the context of extending this to the wide variety of media and tasks which humans use computers for seems almost ridiculous.

The chapter also gives some time to the concepts of visibility and affordance, and introduces Raskins concept of monotony. “A monotonous interface is one in which any desired result has only one means by which it may be invoked: Action a is invoked by gesture g and in no other way.” The most common example of this is the use of pull-down menus, and menu shortcuts, which provide two ways of achieving the same result, meaning the user must make a choice and temporarily loose their locus of attention. (p. 67)

I believe that an interface that is both modeless and, insofar as possible, monotonous æ would be extraordinarily pleasant to use. … If I am correct, the use of (such an interface) … would soon become so habitual as to be nearly addictive. (p. 68)

This quote summarises many of the issues I have with this book, and Raskin’s idea’s in general – they are beliefs and untested, and even the paths that lead to these beliefs don’t seem to be that strong. The attempts I have seen at implementing them have such a steep learning curve, for little gain. Part of me wants to believe in Jef’s ‘if’ and get over whatever mental hurdle is in the way of my understanding his beliefs and concepts, but I do believe that if he was right it would have been done by now – surely nothing that is that right should be that hard to get too.

Chapter 4. Quantification
This chapter gives a good overview and usage outlines for various methods for quantitative analysis and measures of efficiency. I didn’t find much new in Raskin’s presentation of these concepts.

Chapter 5. Unification
This is the big chapter in the book where all of the previous chapters come together and suggestions are put forward for new interfaces. Raskin’s suggestions are bold and go heavily against conventional interface practices and understanding. I think there are many good points raised in this section, but as a whole I found it difficult going. I guess by this stage in the book I hadn’t been converted, so wasn’t able to easily accept the suggestions put forward.

That said, I think the basic principals behind unification are strong: reducing the number of available options and commands without impacting on users ability to achieve their goals, and consistency across the whole interface for everything (commands, actions, selection, indication).

Chapter 6. Navigation and Other Aspects of Humane Interfaces
The navigational part of this chapter talks extensively about zooming interface paradigms, or ZIP’s. These are interfaces where you move over and zoom in and out of a 2D plane of infinite resolution to find and access information. Raskin put’s forward that a ZoomWorld type interface could easily and better replace the entire desktop, web browser, operating system and applications. (p. 165) …

Raskin then has a very strong critique of icons and their misuse. He concludes that, “icons violate the principle of visibility: It is their meanings that are not visible. Use icons only in the few situations where research has shown them to be advantageous. Otherwise words are better.” (p. 173-4) I agree to a point, but I don’t think that the meaning of words is necessarily any clearer than the meaning of icons. The meanings of many words is not always understood, and often vary from person to person. You have to learn the meanings of words, just as you do icons. I would expect that well chosen words and well designed icons would across the board be equally of value, and poorly designed icons and poorly chosen words just as damaging.

Chapter 7. Interface Issues Outside the User Interface
This chapter briefly covers a few aspects of user interface design worth noting: the design and interfaces programmers use to create software could be greatly improved, and inspire or allow better design throughout the software; cables are part of the user experience as well, and Raskin argues that cables should be hermaphroditic, not male-female as they are currently.

Chapter 8. Conclusion
Raskin concludes that by starting with an understanding of human cognition, striving for simplicity and focusing on “uniformity among individuals” we can build completely modeless and monotonous interfaces that improve productivity and lead to less time spent doing a task. (p. 205-6)

Starting from what we know of human cognition, we have been led to fundamental changes in the design of human-machine interfaces. Nothing less will do. (p. 206)

Maybe it’s just me and my experience and training so far, but I don’t have faith in this methodology. Cognition seems like the right place to start, but maybe we don’t know something yet, or we have got something fundamental wrong. Maybe this is all ok, but Raskin has taken a path that feels wrong to me – it’s the same feeling I have about communist style government and economics, it’s appears fantastic in theory and on paper, but it doesn’t allow for some human behaviour or just doesn’t seem to work in application.

This is a good book for stimulating some very deep thinking about the way we work and think as humans, and about we apply this to our tools. It has a lot of value in this area, but I think many of it’s practical applications are theoretical at best, and it does not appear to me that they could work in the currently presented form. I hope Raskin’s thinking is continued, and research and attempts are made to make his theories into practice so we see them, try them and learn from them.

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