The high-performance GUI

When it comes to increasing human productivity, user interfaces aren't one size fits all

All of our standard technologies for human-computer interaction -- the mouse, the GUI, and the web of linked documents -- can be traced directly to Douglas Engelbart. Almost 40 years ago, he showed all of these innovations working together in the famous 1968 “mother of all demos.” Although Engelbart still isn’t as widely known as he deserves to be, many people do realize that his pioneering work set the agenda for computers and software that are intuitively easy to use.

But the real story is more complicated than that. Engelbart’s ultimate goal was, and remains, to augment human capability. As a species, we face huge political, social, and technical challenges. The only way to tackle them effectively, he believes, is by enhancing our ability to create, share, analyze, and collectively act on representations of knowledge.

Easy-to-use computer systems, as we conventionally understand them, are not what Engelbart had in mind. You might be surprised to learn that he regards today’s one-size-fits-all GUI as a tragic outcome. That paradigm, he said in a talk at Accelerating Change 2004, has crippled our effort to augment human capability.

High-performance tasks require high-performance user interfaces specially designed for those tasks. Instead of making every task lie on the Procrustean bed of the standard GUI, we should be inventing new, task-appropriate interfaces. No, they won’t work for everyone. Yes, they’ll require effort to learn. But in every domain there are some experts who will invest that effort in order to achieve greater mastery. We need to do more to empower those people.

Bran Ferren, co-founder of Applied Minds, made the same point in a talk at the Web 2.0 conference in 2005. He argues that none of the usual suspects -- low bandwidth, scarce CPU cycles, and immature software methodologies -- are really to blame for our lack of progress in computer use. The villain is KVM: the keyboard/video/mouse UI paradigm. It’s crazy, Ferren says, to think that the “tiny soda straw of KVM” can be an effective bridge between the external complexity of the Net and the internal complexity of the human brain.

By way of counter-example, he cites the heads-up displays used in aircraft, and the rich diversity of musical instruments. The most intuitive musical interface, he points out, is the kazoo. Anybody can learn to play one, but even the best achievable results have little value. Music that matters to us is played on instruments that are much more specialized. And yet, Ferren says, we’re “trying to drive forward in the shared-knowledge age using kazoo-class interfaces for computers.”

If your pockets are deep, you can hire Applied Minds to build a 3D haptic (tactile) interface that’s exquisitely customized for your data and your tasks. But for most of us that’s not an option. We’ll be stuck with the keyboard/video/mouse arrangement -- or its close cousin, tablet/stylus -- for a while.

But we’re not stuck with our GUI conventions. I’ve argued before that even in the KVM world we’ve barely scratched the surface of possible innovation. What holds us back is the fear that everyone might not immediately figure out how to use a radically different GUI. Maybe it’s time to admit that’s OK. Of course, we’ve got to keep striving to make basic tasks intuitive for everyone. But our top performers also need more specialized tools for analysis and decision-making, and we shouldn’t be afraid to provide them.

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