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29 APRIL 2013

The idiomatic paradigm of user interface design

"This third method of user interface design solves the problems of both of the previous two. I call it idiomatic because it is based on the way we learn and use idioms, or figures of speech, like 'beat around the bush' or 'cool.' They are easily understood but not in the same way metaphors are. There is no bush and nobody is beating anything. We understand the idiom because we have learned it and because it is distinctive. Pretty simple, huh? This is where the human mind is really outstanding, mastering learning and remembering idioms very easily without having to depend on comparing them to known situations or understanding how they work. It has to, because most idioms don't have any metaphoric meaning at all. Most of the controls on a GUI interface are idioms. Splitters, winders, comboboxes and scrollbars are things we learn idiomatically rather than intuit metaphorically.

We tend to think that learning is hard because of the conditioning we have from the technology paradigm. Those old user interfaces were very hard to learn because you also had to understand how they worked. Most of what we know we learn without understanding; things like faces, social interactions, attitudes, the arrangement of rooms and furniture in our houses and offices. We don't 'understand' why someone's face is composed the way it is, but we 'know' their face. We recognize it because we have looked at it and memorized it, and it wasn't that difficult.

The familiar mouse is not metaphoric of anything but rather is learned idiomatically. That scene in Star Trek IV where Scotty returns to twentieth–century Earth and tries to speak into a mouse is one of the few parts of that movie that is not fiction. There is nothing about the mouse that indicates its purpose or use, nor is it comparable to anything else in our experience, so learning it is not intuitive. However, learning to point at things with a mouse is incredibly easy. Someone probably spent all of three seconds showing it to you your first time, and you mastered it from that instant on. We don't know or care how mice work and yet we can operate them just fine. That is idiomatic learning.

The key observation about idioms is that although they must be learned, good ones only need to be learned once. It is quite easy to learn idioms like 'cool' or 'politically correct' or 'kick the bucket' or 'the lights are on but nobody's home' or 'in a pickle' or 'inside the beltway' or 'take the red–eye' or 'grunge.' The human mind is capable of picking up an idiom like one of the above from a single hearing. It is similarly easy to learn idioms like checkboxes, radiobuttons, pushbuttons, close boxes, pulldown menus, buttcons, tabs, comboboxes, keyboards, mice and pens.

This idea of taking a simple action or symbol and imbuing it with meaning is familiar to marketing professionals. Synthesizing idioms is the essence of product branding, whereby a company takes a product or company name and imbues it with a desired meaning. Tylenol is a meaningless word, an idiom, but the McNeil company has spent millions to make you associate that word with safe, simple, trustworthy pain relief. Of course, idioms are visual, too. The golden arches of MacDonalds, the three diamonds of Mitsubishi, the five interlocking rings of the Olympics, even Microsoft's flying window are non–metaphoric idioms that are instantly recognizable and imbued with common meaning.

Ironically, much of the familiar GUI baggage often thought to be metaphoric is actually idiomatic. Such artifacts as window close boxes, resizable windows, infinitely nested file folders and clicking and dragging are non–metaphoric operations–they have no parallel in the real world. They derive their strength only from their easy idiomatic learnability."

(Alan Cooper, 1995)

Alan Cooper (1995). "The Myth of Metaphor", Visual Basic Programmer's Journal.

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TAGS

1995 • click and drag • cognitive map • combo box • computer mouseconceptual modelfigure of speechgraphical user interfaceGUI • hard to learn • human-computer interactionidiom • idiomatic • idiomatic learnability • idiomatic learning • idioms • imbued with meaning • interface designinterface metaphor • known situations • learned behaviour • learning and remembering • meaning making • nested file structure • no parallel in the real world • non-metaphoric idioms • non-metaphoric operationsn • pulldown menu • pushbutton • radiobutton • resizable window • scrollbar • synthesizing idioms • tabbed browsing • technology paradigm • user interface design • user interfaces • widget

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
11 FEBRUARY 2013

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

"Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically 'dead' (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn–out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a 'rift,' for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase."

(George Orwell)

George Orwell (1950). "Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays", Secker & Warburg Publishers, UK.

TAGS

1946allusion • artful • clarity of thoughtcliche • colloquial lexicon • common metaphorscommunicationcomprehending language • connotation • dying metaphors • EnglishEnglish language • evocative power • expressionexpressive repertoirefigurative languagefigure of speechGeorge Orwellhackneyedidiomimaginative metaphorsindirect reference • inventing phrases • languagelanguage developmentlazinessliteraturemental imagemetaphor • mixed metaphor • ordinary word • poetic devices • poetic functionsentence • tired expressions • use of wordsverbal freshness • visual image • vividness • worn-out • writing • writing style • writing tips

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
30 JUNE 2012

Internet Cafés: hybrids involving analogue and digital, virtual and real

"Terms like 'Internet café' or 'cybercafé' bring us right back to the 90s along with phrases like 'web page' or 'digital divide', which were invented to describe new hybrids involving analog and digital, virtual and real as well as the present and near future.

It's not that these terms have grown obsolete. It's rather that these 20th–century phenomena they once described have outgrown their terminology. They were born as metaphors, but over time turned into idioms, and their analog parts were the first [to] lose their original meanings. People who did not witness the emergence of the web do not fully understand why browser content is still called a 'page'. It's has also become unclear what public internet access facilities have in common with cafés, yet we continue calling them 'internet cafés' or 'cybercafés'."

(Olia Lialina, 2012–01–10)

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TAGS

1990s20th century20th century phenomenaanalogue and digitalarchaeology • Bart Plantenga • browser content • cafecafescyber archaeology • cybercafe • cybercafes • cyberculture • Danja Vasiliev • digital archaeologydigital culturedigital divideDragan Espenschiedemergence of the web • Florian Cramer • Goethe Institute • Goethe-Instituthistoryhome pagehybrid formidiomInternetinternet archaeology • internet cafe • internet cafes • inventionJODI (art collective) • Leslie Robbins • metaphor • near future • new cosmopolitanism • new hybrids • obsolescenceOlia Lialina • original meaning • outgrownpage metaphorphenomenaphenomenonPiet Zwart Institute • Piet Zwart Institute Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam University • public internet access • Renee Turner • Rotterdam • Rotterdam University • terminologythe pastvirtual and realwebweb pages • Wendelien van Oldenborgh • Willem de Kooning Academy • www

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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