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Pascal's deal about User Interfaces, for dummies
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This weblog has an heterogeneous set of readers and one of the challenges I always have when I write weblog entries is to find the right..... style. I try and convey my points in precise and unambiguous ways while avoiding being unnecessary formal and abstract. At least I try, and until today I thought that I wasn't too bad at it.

Yesterday's entry (nb: I deleted it), for instance, was written to be understood by everybody, I mean people without technical knowledge. You see, what I said, tech people already know it, and mostly agree with me because they feel the same about it. So my primary target was really the "others"; eg: your regular PC user who doesn't think about those stuff, because they just use whatever is given to them (in the computer itself or online).

The above is why I was surprised when somebody told me today "Your entry looks interesting but I didn't understand anything, can you make it more easy to understand ?"



Ok, so here is an analogy to understand. Imagine that you move to a foreign country where the local customs are very bizarre when it comes to interacting with your sentimental partner. After your first kiss, once you start going out with somebody, a law enters into action and from this moment your only way to interact with your partner is to point your finger at a piece of paper. Both parties have the same piece of paper and every time they want to say something or want something they need to find the right icon on the piece of paper and just point to it. Just to make it clear, you can never talk to, write to, text to, sing to your parter. The entire extent of the communication you will ever have with your partner is to put your finger on one of the icons of the approved piece of paper.

If you want sex, you point at the sex icon, and unfortunately it's the icon of the missionary position, so that's pretty much all you're going to get. If you wanted another position, or a blowjob, or something, not gonna happen because there is no icon for it.

If you want to go on holidays, there is one icon for your parent's house and one icon for your partner's parent house. You cannot go anywhere else because there isn't any other holidays' related icon on the paper.

And same goes for everything else. Absolutely anything that requires communication with your partner has to be an existing icon and the action happens without any variation, only the standard way. I let you imagine how deciding what to eat for dinner goes: one of the few food icons, nothing else.

It is likely that this will drive you crazy.

That being said, as you notice, the people of that country, whom have never been outside their own country think it's fine. They don't complain. That's because they don't know any better. After all, how can you desire what you have never experienced (or didn't even know about) in the first place ?

So, I am the person who comes from some outside world and I start a relationship with computers (Mac or PCs) or websites on the internet. My relationship with them sucks because everything is icon, or drop down menus, or other graphical interface methods. This drives me crazy because there is a way to have conversations with digital machines (which was the original method to talk to them), a way which looks like this



This would be like, to come back to the analogy, as if the government decides that in your case, your partner and yourself have a special authorization to use a smartphone and you can use WhatsApp to communicate. You still cannot talk to each other, but WhatsApp usage is unlimited to you both. You will agree that this would literally change your (sentimental) life.

There are cases where graphical user interfaces are actually the natural thing to do, this happens when you are doing something inherently graphical. For instance, if you are working on the next animation movie, then the objects you manipulate in this case are frames of the movie, so you need graphical tools to manipulate them, but for most of the tasks we all do all day long on computers (including stuff on the internet) the graphics are less important than the fact that in essence our minds are collaborating with the computer at processing information (remember the example of cmd.fm); you might never have thought about it that way and you might be surprised by what I say, but just imagine how people of that country feel when I tell them that in my country sentimental partners do talk to each other.

Anyway, the point is that there are things that I want to tell the computer (or a website) and that I cannot tell through a graphical user interface interface. I need to be able to express them using grammatically correct sentences in a language the computer understands. And that language, to keep things simple, is actually the native language of computers. It's actually ironically difficult to build graphical user interfaces in the first place, and the sad thing is that in the end they only end up pissing me off because they can only express primitive concepts. Remember the girl in the analogy who will only get missionary position because the graphical user interface she uses to communicate with her boy friend, the paper, only has one icon for sex, all this despite the fact that her boy friend might actually be a sex god (and her a sex goddess). But sadly she doesn't have any way to specify that she wants the entire Kama Sutra, instead she only gets what the approved sex icon specifies.

Coming back to yesterday's entry, the point I was making is that if the Joe Smith of the world can only do icons, then fine give that to them, but the effort to provide me with actually working communication channels is so easy (because that's what computers and websites know how to do before they even have a graphical user interface) that it makes the fact of not having them that much more painful.


For the reader's information, this is actually one of the reasons I don't use online social networks (I don't have a Facebook/Google+/LinkedIn/Twitter account for instance). I would, if those things were not designed for idiots. You see, to me those sites are data troves, and I want to interact with the data (because that manipulation would be useful to me). Instead, they build them like art galleries, where you are just expected to enjoy the (web) designer's thinking (and the ads of their clients, and your personal data being sold for a price) but cannot do much more than that. I cannot specify the rules of my feeds (are those still called feeds ?), I cannot write my own client to chat with my Facebook friends (Adium used to do that, but Facebook killed the API), I cannot set the visual style of the site to fit my preferences (white text on black background, as I learnt from traders on my first day on the trading floor, is the way to keep your eyes working until after your death -- ever wondered why Bloomberg terminals look the way they do ?), I cannot write a script to forwards my friend's messages to Nyx (I guess I could do that with Twitter though), I cannot do anything *useful*...

Think about it, (putting aside one moment the Facebook chat) would your Facebook account be less 'useful' if instead of having to go to the web site itself, your friends posts and pictures were automatically emailed to you ? Would you feel not as "connected" ? Of course not. That's actually the way I would prefer Facebook to work. Moreover, that way is actually easier to implement than the site (web app) itself, so why cannot I open a Facebook account and quickly specify that I want to receive the data from my friends only in my email inbox (my real email, not the Facebook one) without actually having to go to the website ? The answer is simple, because the companies which do advertisement on Facebook would have no reason to do it anymore... (above all if I can specify that I *only* want to see my friend data...). Anyway, having to choose between the huge pain of using Facebook as it is on one hand, and the mild inconvenience of not using it on the other hand, I made my choice. (Going back to the analogy, that would be like having to choose between a paper/icon-based relationship or celibacy, I made my choice ^^)

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