Vincent Gable’s Blog

July 19, 2010

Facilitated Learning

Filed under: Accessibility,Design,Quotes,Usability | , ,
― Vincent Gable on July 19, 2010

We made a world populated with objects that reacted to what humans did, but they didn’t interact very strongly. Whereas that isn’t enough, pure discovery learning took us 100,000 years to get to science. So you actually need learning that’s facilitated. And if you can’t make 1,000 good teachers in a year to save yourself, you have to have a user interface that can do that.

Alan Kay, answering questions on the OLPC project, November 5, 2008

March 18, 2010

The Most Depressing Thing I Heard in 2008

Filed under: Programming,Quotes | , , , ,
― Vincent Gable on March 18, 2010

In a way ideas only count for a little in computing, because you kind of have to implement this stuff. This is the part of the story that really makes me clutch at my throat, because every time you implement something, 5 years go away.

Alan Kay

October 19, 2009

Less is More

Fundamentally, a computer is a tool. People don’t use computers to use the computer, they use a computer to get something done. An interface helps people control the computer, but it also gets in their way. Inevitably, any on-screen widget is displacing some part of the thing the user is trying to manipulate.

As an infamous example, expanding Microsoft Word’s toolbars leaves no room for actually writing something,


(Screenshot by Jeff Atwood)

Users don’t want to admire the scrollbars. Truth be told, they don’t even want scrollbars as such, they just want to access content and have the interface get out of the way.

Jakob Nielsen

Show The Data

I highly recommend Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s probably the most effective book or cultivating a distaste for graphical excesses.

Tufte’s teachings are rooted in static print. But many of the principles are just as valuable in interactive media. (And static graphics are still very useful in analysis and presentation. Learning how to graph better isn’t a waste of time.)

Tufte’s first rule of statistical graphic design is, “Show the data” , and it’s an excellent starting point for interface design as well.

Cathy Shive has an excellent post expanding on Tufte’s term Computer Administrative Debris.

The Chartjunk blog showcases a few real-world examples of Tuftian redrawings.

Get Out of My Mind

Learning happens when attention is focused. … If you don’t have a good theory of learning, then you can still get it to happen by helping the person focus. One of the ways you can help a person focus is by removing interference.

–Alan Kay, Doing With Images Makes Symbols.

Paradoxically then, the better the design, the less it will be noticed. We should strive to write our interfaces in invisible ink.

April 15, 2009

Beyond Two Page Programs

And one of the things that is disturbingly true about most novices on computers is that about 2 pages of program is the maximum they can handle. They like to spread it out, use their visual field as an extension of their short term memory

–Alan Kay From Doing With Images Makes Symbols

A few thoughts on this phenomenon.

A denser, more concise, less “English like” programming language would counter-intuitivly be easier for novices to use, if it let them keep their project below the 2-page limit.

Does this limit increase with more and bigger displays?

Do graphical programming language change anything? It seems like they might “scale” better on a very large display. But in my (albeit limited) experience they are much less compact then textual source code. And it’s not clear to me they support abstraction as well.

March 13, 2009

A Chair for Design

Filed under: Design,Quotes | , ,
― Vincent Gable on March 13, 2009

Alan Kay explained why he liked beanbag chairs at PARC,

And one of the reasons we used them was that we discovered it was almost impossible to leap to your feat to denounce someone once you had sat in a bean bag chair, because you tended to sink into it further and further. So it had a way of relaxing people and it was very good for design.

From Doing With Images Makes Symbols

What seating arrangement do you think works best for creativity, both individual and group? Personally I like pacing when I’m thinking alone.

February 5, 2009

If You Don’t Know How to Help, You Can Still Do Good by Getting Out of the Way

Filed under: Design,Quotes,Usability | , ,
― Vincent Gable on February 5, 2009

Learning happens when attention is focused. …
If you don’t have a good theory of learning, then you can still get it to happen by helping the person focus. One of the ways you can help a person focus is by removing interference.

–Alan Kay, Doing With Images Makes Symbols.

Point Of View is 80 IQ Points

Filed under: Design,Quotes | ,
― Vincent Gable on February 5, 2009

Point of view is worth 80 IQ points … it’s not logic that is powerful. Logic is actually a weak method because it depends on fragile chains of inference. And people have used logic throughout history but mostly in inappropriate context.

There’s nothing illogical about the way the alchemists did things, it was that they were in a context where there logic couldn’t do much. so it’s this notion that the context is powerful, and if you want to be able to be good at solving problems and acting much smarter then you are then you have to find the context that will do the thinking for you.

Most computer scientists know this because it goes under another heading “choose the appropriate data structure before you start tinkering around with the algorithm”. If you choose the right data structure it will have most of the result computed almost automatically as part of its inherent structure.

–Alan Kay, Doing With Images Makes Symbols.

There are many related anecdotes about solving the right problem.

Pens Suck

Filed under: Accessibility,Design,Usability | , , , ,
― Vincent Gable on February 5, 2009

In 1987, Alan kay said,

By the way, Sketchpad was the first system where it was discovered that the light pen was a very bad input device. The blood runs out of your hand in about 20 seconds, and leaves it numb. And in spite of that it’s been re-invented at least 90 times in the last 25 years.

Almost 50 years after Sketchpad, you can find a light pen at any computer store today. Today, these light pens are used to supplement more circulation-friendly input devices. Maybe that’s enough to solve the problems Sketchpad had.

Personally, I think the metaphor of a the pen is too blindingly strong. People love their pens, because they grew up with them. I don’t accept that they are the pinnacle of input. We can do better then copying a pointy stick filled with dye.

But I have my own biases and unique experiences. I am dysgraphic — I have trouble writing legibly by hand, and spelling. To me a pen is not something that feels good or puts me in the zone. It’s something that gets in the way of expressing my ideas. But fundamentally, isn’t every input device a barrier between your mind and the medium?

January 18, 2009

Touching The Information

Alan Kay talking about GRaIL, Graphical Input Language, a system implemented in the late ’60s that was so far ahead of it’s time, it’s still pretty impressive today.

“I felt like I was sticking my hands right through the display and actually touching the information structures directly.”

I had no idea this sort of interface was done so early.

January 15, 2009

Even a Small Child Can Do it

This segment of an Alan Kay presentation (pt 2) really jumped out at me.

She’s never lived in a world that wasn’t densely populated with Macintoshes. …She literally learned to use it by sitting on her mother’s lap while her mother was working. So for this child, the Macintosh is not a piece of technology, but simply more material in the environment to manipulate.

Another interesting point to note is that even though she can’t read, she’s able to recognize standard textual menu items.

And in fact we discovered that she was about 70% literate — that about 70% of the generic window commands that are found in any Macintosh application, she’s able to use. Not just in a visual program like Mac Paint.

One message Alan Kay really drove home is not just that that computers can be simple enough for children, but that designing for children can lead to better designs for adults. But remember that that just because a child can use a computer does not make it a silver bullet for education.

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