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The Desktop Metaphor

created 2003-09-05 10:58:15

(Up to: Interfaces Ideas Functionally Focused Interfaces )

I blogged this...

Mobiles 'to replace handheld PCs'

...and decided to go on and on about the issues and effects involved in convergence, when I managed to hit Control and Q whilst writing an e-mail. Mozilla really needs a "Are you sure you want to quite this form-in-progress" prompt - maybe I'll learn XUL and write one someday. But nevertheless, you're all spared my delusonial ranting - hurrah!

To be honest, it wasn't really going anywhere, anyway. But it did get me thinking of a related point. I was pondering whether the forced simplicity of interfaces in mobile technology was important in considering convergence, i.e. if usability would be sacrificed as more features were added, and started to compare it against the usability of desktop GUIs. This is something that I came across the other week over on Phil's ThoughtStorms wiki, maybe it's been sitting on my noodle like a purring cat without me knowing.

But rather than take a scalability standpoint on the matter, I'm also intrigued in breaking the thoughtmould of a common GUI metaphor, i.e. that of the desktop. The problem of this metaphor is that while it works for organising information, just as people organise it on their desks, it doesn't take into account the extended functionality that a computer system offers. Desks cannot be structurally affected by the information residing on them. (Unless the weight gets too much and they collapse... ;)

This is the restriction of the desktop metaphor, and hence why we should strive to free ourselves of it. Information is no longer passive data. Information is intertwined with functionality. It's as if reading a post-it note on your desk could automatically call somebody.

I think that many of the problems people have relating to computers is that they do not understand this extension, the concept that any information in the system can be used to perform tasks, rather than simply being a bucket that the human interacts with.

What we need is a metaphor that takes this into account, a paradigm that portrays information more as a "flow", that takes into account not just the content, but its relations with the environment in which it resides. By giving people this concept of interaction, we are in a much better position to then make full use of the technology.

By this, I certainly do not mean that we should all become geeks, and that I am proposing an advocacy of the inner workings of operating systems. I mean that the way in which we view a generic computer system needs to take into account the link between information and execution, content and functionality.

(See also: HCTOpen Day2004 )

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