When it comes to computers, what you do is, essentially manipulate an interface. That "work" gets done (and I include things like making your character level up, or wiping out those pesky Night Elves, or whatever...) is a side-effect of what you're actually doing. In my experience as a computer geek, I use all sorts of interfaces. Some of them are elegant and useful, others are complicated and arcane. I get frustrated with poor interface design, because it seems inelegant. In fact, my first professional writing credit was for an article on interface design
But interface design has more to do with life than just software. Tuesday, the cable installers finally came around and did my install when I was home. Actually, I have to give them a lot of credit, they called ahead, and because I'm an employee of the company, sent a full-on internet tech rather than just a regular installer. He hooked everything up, and even showed me some of the more arcane features like how video-on-demand works. In fact, an aside on
It's so cool! It's sort of a poor man's TiVo; and oh, how I miss my TiVo! You go to channel one, and then follow a cascading list of menu's to pick a program to watch, and voila, there it is. You can pause it, fast forward it, rewind it - whatever you want. I fired up Tomb Raider, which for one reason or another I had never seen before. Okay, it was an awful, awful movie (like, ok - if the whole quest was to get both pieces of the "Key of Light" so that she could destroy them, thus preventing them from being reassembled and used -- and she already had one piece... why not just destroy that one piece? Wouldn't that do the trick? At least every ten minutes, someone would do something completely irrational or ridiculous, and utterly unexplained in the story. Bad movie because of a dumb script - a common problem in Hollywood.) but anyway - it was really cool to be able to just fire up a movie when I want it. Because I'm an employee, any but the most recent of movies are free to watch, too - and the ones that are new are half priced. Pretty cool! There's also music videos, sports programs, you name it. Alas, not the last episode of Buffy... But my high-speed internet connection is smoooooking, which makes me very happy. And no more of this danged ppp-over-ethernet business, either!
One problem with the digital cable is the remote. It's basically the interface for the box, but the buttons on the remote don't map neatly to the functions on the screen, especially for the Video-On-Demand. Also, the number buttons aren't square buttons with numbers printed on them, rather, they're cut-out numbers that you depress. This makes it easy to miss a number, and hence, easy to skip to the wrong channel. This is all so unneccessary - a better design would have made the buttons on the remote match what's on your screen. In an ideal world, a remote would be a touch-sensitive LCD screen that exactly emulates whatever device you're pointing it at. This is called "cognitive mapping" and it's an important element of interface design.
Websites are another interesting interface design issue. People from all over the world may access them, and they should be easy to navigate, yet also thorough. They almost never are! What's particularly interesting is the "arty" web sites, like the websites of musicians. Usually navigation is accomplished by mousing over some sort of icon which is part of a larger design element. The problem is that this isn't quick, or easy to understand. Even thematrix.com suffers from having loads and loads of cool content, but no particularly easy way to navigate around until you fuss with it a bit.
It's an increasingly technological world we live in, and there's no unity of interface design. Say what you want about Windows, but one thing it's done is make a single, fairly easy to use, interface the universal experience of office computers. That's at least a good start, right?
Now if only people came with an interface. Maybe I wouldn't be so baffled by the behavior of people that I like - because I'd be able to press the right buttons to at least get a readout that makes sense.