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In a recent article about the possibility of a modular interface for Adobe Photoshop (maybe they will ditch our button-palette and substitute it with wizards all over?) it is implied that UI changes will not make the program lighter: “I think the benefit will be more in users’ perception than in saved clock cycles” says John Nack, product manager of Photoshop.

But what got my attention was a commentary by Aaron J. Seigo, lead of the new KDE’s Plasma project. He says “when one has to choose between the two, making the user move faster is more important than making the software move faster. that is because the point of software used by people (versus software that cranks through computations or transactions) is to benefit the person using it. making the computer work harder so the user doesn’t have to is really the entire point.”

This is reasonable, but i think there is an important matter that gets clouded if we put the problem in those terms.

Although when faced between a choice to waste the computer’s time and the user’s time i wouldn’t blink before choosing to spend extra processor cycles, i think this choice is never the right one. I think the correct idea is to not waste anyone’s time. As Aaron puts it, when one has to choose. The choice is not mandatory. Most of the time it should not exist.

Actually, i do think that there is a problem in the way a program is conceived if this choice even exists.

People and programs are two different beasts and they should not be put together in unfitting circumstances. If you have to tweak one or the other for them to get along, then there should be a better solution somewhere.

This seems very excessive if i put this way. So let me give an example. Does Photoshop need to be a fixed and easily computable toolbox or a morphing, predicting, complex and hardly computable at all presentation-like interface? Neither. It must be a simple, clearly defined tool that allows you to do anything.

Making the interface morph to “adapt” to “different kinds of users” solves one perceived problem — tool accumulation/ pollution — but this is clearly working harder, not smarter.

Again in John Nack’s words, “what’s the net result of a million good features? Yep–a million little pieces(…). An app like Photoshop becomes a warren of commands that are available sometimes but not others, in ways that aren’t self-explanatory (…). And the sheer volume of options can be overwhelming.”

New ways to deal with the multitude of menu options is a good thing, maybe even allowing some sort of windowblinds “share-your-config” thing might be a good idea. But it is not making the problem go away. It will simply add another layer of interface: it’s like you have the computer, at the other end the user, and in between something unhelpfully called “The Interface”, but then you add to this last layer the interface-management-framework, and after that you will need the interface-morphing-heuristics-platform. And then what? The interface, that thing that stands between the user and the computer, that thing that was supposed to become thinner and thiner, just keeps inflating.

I feel that using cpu-cycles to make the computer pretend to be something nice and shiny — remember Corel’s welcome balloon? — is pointless. You do not need to seduce users.

What you need is more power.

And spending lots of lines of code into some kind of AI to understand users’ wishes is not a powerful option — even if it gives users a sense of confidence.

More CPU cycles than you have something useful to do with is not power, but neither is users who believe they are in control of their program but in reality are more and more layers of configurations and defaults away from the image algorithms. Users do not need to be protected from the metal, they do not need to stay away from the machine. They should be close to the machine. It is just that the machine must be more meaningful.



  1. I know it’s kinda lame to tell all this and not come up with some ideas about what to do to make “The Interface” thinner, but bear in mind that i am late and tired, if someone keeps pestering me about this i’ll find some time to put some of my ideas on paper — er, on the blog.

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