Article: Info Software and GUIs (by Bret Victor)

Jared Spool points an interesting article by Bret Victor called “Magic Ink: Information Software and the Graphical Interface.” Here’s the abstract:

The ubiquity of frustrating, unhelpful software interfaces has motivated decades of research into “Human-Computer Interaction.” In this paper, I suggest that the long-standing focus on “interaction” may be misguided. For a majority subset of software, called “information software,” I argue that interactivity is actually a curse for users and a crutch for designers, and users’ goals can be better satisfied through other means.

Information software design can be seen as the design of context-sensitive information graphics. I demonstrate the crucial role of information graphic design, and present three approaches to context-sensitivity, of which interactivity is the last resort. After discussing the cultural changes necessary for these design ideas to take root, I address their implementation. I outline a tool which may allow designers to create data-dependent graphics with no engineering assistance, and also outline a platform which may allow an unprecedented level of implicit context-sharing between independent programs. I conclude by asserting that the principles of information software design will become critical as technology improves.

Although this paper presents a number of concrete design and engineering ideas, the larger intent is to introduce a “unified theory” of information software design, and provide inspiration and direction for progressive designers who suspect that the world of software isn’t as flat as they’ve been told.

I just gave a keynote at the Polish IA Summit in Warsaw on the topic of sense making. I highlighted four key challenges IAs and designers face in creating interfaces that let people make better sense of large amounts of information, all of which are reflected in Bret Victor’s article:

  1. Representation: how information is displayed affects how it’s consumed and understood, but showing large amounts of information can be difficult in many situations (e.g., on smaller displays).
  2. Interaction: giving people the ability to manipulate information is important for sense making. However, there is an effort-benefit tradeoff–people may not take the time to learn how to use all the controls you provide, or they may not have the skills.
  3. Semantics: Bret Victor talks about context sensitivity of information, which is essentially what I was talking about with semantics.
  4. Time: showing how information (and metadata) change over time can provide incredible insight in many situations. Just look at Hans Rosling’s Gapminder talks. The temporal dimension of information is important for sense making.

Sense making solutions, then, combine and balance all of the above aspects. Beyond that, there are two more considerations:

5. Understanding users, workflow, and needs, and creating systems that bring value to people.

6. Bringing value to businesses

While a lot of the academic work on sense making is interesting and inspiring, it still fails to adequately address this last two points, in my opinion. Bret Victor’s piece is definitely a step in the right direction. Check it out.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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