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Doing The Right Thing: Apple UI history

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Interview "If you do this kind of work," says interaction designer Gitta Salomon, "everything bugs you. Your car, your cordless phone, your home entertainment system - you hate everything."

I feel the same way too. Bad human interface design - the sort that really gets in your way - is like a personal DoS attack. Why don't voicemail systems have the same menu options to delete and store messages, for example?

We were in Gitta's design studio in downtown San Francisco, Swim. Really to talk about a concept she helped develop ten years ago at Apple Computer, "Piles". But it turned into a discussion about the problems researchers face when trying to do The Right Thing.

Multidisciplinary

Gitta's six years as an Apple researcher ended in 1993, when she left the company. The members of the HIG (Human Interface Group) still keep in touch, preserving a unique period in technology history.

"It was the best of places," she says. Like Xerox PARC before it, it was a multidisciplinary group, she explained. "We kind of defined our own problems."

The HIG was disbanded, highlighting the eternal debate over where research should take place.

"Should it be distributed, with pockets of two or three of us close to the product groups? When Jobs disbanded the research arm after he returned, he argued that it was too divorced from what had to be done."

"At AT&T they do things five years out. But given the choice between workingon something that's one to two years out, and something that's six months out, you always end up doing the shorter term stuff - because it's always more urgent."

Last year Nielsen savaged Apple's subsequent decision to disband the dedicated research arm.

"They had great projects ten years ago," he lamented. "Fundamentally they decided to get back to the safe little area around the fireplace, and they're just making little tweaks to what they did 17 years ago, and putting new color on the machine," he told The Register

Purer research: the Freedom to Fail?
But why? What was the difference in the industry between then and now, that prompted the change. Were economic pressures simply to blame?

Perhaps not entirely. Gitta cites the example of PhotoShop, where the demand for new features - the demand for "novelty", as she aptly describes it - creates a sprawling beast of a product. Feature creep is pretty common in the software industry. The thirst for novelty, she observes, outweighs the pain of the consequential UI clutter:

"They provide something you could never do before, which makes people put up with the awful interface."

And the Internet has lowered expectations too.

"The web has sped up the development process," too she says. "Microsoft ships a beta and then says 'wait for the patches.'"

"You wouldn't get this in a consumer product. But in software, it's never finished, so it's always 'good enough'"

"And that leaves no room to be thoughtful. Quality control has gone way down."

"People get upset by bad design but the expectation is set so low. If you had a washing machine that worked as badly, you'd never buy from that manufacturer again."

"So we're losing a level of depth in product development. At Apple we had more time, which is good."

A senior researcher had told me that in R&D, you have the "Freedom to Fail". Was that the core?

"Yes, it's good for learning. Failures are less expensive at the R&D stage. It's not a failed project if the outcome is not productizable. You have gained some good learning."

Assuming you've kept that hard-gained knowledge in the company.

For example the Piles concept, on which Apple holds a patent, was devised over six months, then a year working with different parts of the organization, such as the content retrieval group, to examine how it could be fitted it into the system software.

"There's no luxury of doing that anywhere," she says, although pure research is still conducted at places such as IBM's Almaden Lab.

OS X

What did Gitta make of the new OS?

"The robustness and multi-tasking is great. That's good, I'm impatient. But I find I spend a lot of time hunting around for things.

Such as?

"The user setup is not well thought out: it's still like a Unix system. And there are things missing."

Apple-Up arrow in the Finder takes you to your home directory, Gitta told me. I didn't know that either. Gitta gleaned that one from David Pogue's Missing Manual, because the default binding is Apple-Shift-H. I have no trouble remembering Apple-Up arrow now, but did we need a missing manual to tell us?

Apple-Up. Who would have thought it?

After this exploration, I'm still not sure what's to blame for the deterioration in the user experience. I'm not sure whether to blame accelerated capitalism for imposing commercial imperatives, or whether the last fifteen years represents some vast surrender by computers users, who persist with the ornery machines despite such bad experiences. It looks like a bit of both.

But it's clear that users value the human interface as much as they value data integrity, and the fabulous Internet-enabled world of promises leaves so many people cold. ®

Related Stories

Deep inside Apple's Piles
Jakob Nielsen on how Apple blew it, how Linux will blow it, and the Next Big Thing
The old DEC, the New HP, the price of The Right Thing
Bored and confused by the PC Internet - world turns to phones

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