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02 APRIL 2014

Designing the Star User Interface: Familiar User's Conceptual Model

"A user's conceptual model is the set of concepts a person gradually acquires to explain the behavior of a system, whether it be a computer system, a physical system, or a hypothetical system. It is the model developed in the mind of the user that enables that person to understand and interact with the system. The first task for a system designer is to decide what model is preferable for users of the system. This extremely important step is often neglected or done poorly. The Star designers devoted several work–years at the outset of the project discussing and evolving what we considered an appropriate model for an office information system: the metaphor of a physical office.

The designer of a computer system can choose to pursue familiar analogies and metaphors or to introduce entirely new functions requiring new approaches. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. We decided to create electronic counterparts to the physical objects in an office: paper, folders, file cabinets, mail boxes, and so on–an electronic metaphor for the office. We hoped this would make the electronic 'world' seem more familiar, less alien, and require less training. (Our initial experiences with users have confirmed this.) We further decided to make the electronic analogues be concrete objects. Documents would be more than file names on a disk; they would also be represented by pictures on the display screen. They would be selected by pointing to them with the mouse and clicking one of the buttons. Once selected, they would be moved, copied, or deleted by pushing the appropriate key. Moving a document became the electronic equivalent of picking up a piece of paper and walking somewhere with it. To file a document, you would move it to a picture of a file drawer, just as you take a physical piece of paper to a physical file cabinet.

The reason that the user's conceptual model should be decided first when designing a system is that the approach adopted changes the functionality of the system. An example is electronic mail. Most electronic–mail systems draw a distinction between messages and files to be sent to other people. Typically, one program sends messages and a different program handles file transfers, each with its own interface. But we observed that offices make no such distinction. Everything arrives through the mail, from one–page memos to books and reports, from intraoffice mail to international mail. Therefore, this became part of Star's physical–office metaphor. Star users mail documents of any size, from one page to many pages. Messages are short documents, just as in the real world. User actions are the same whether the recipients are in the next office or in another country.

A physical metaphor can simplify and clarify a system. In addition to eliminating the artificial distinctions of traditional computers, it can eliminate commands by taking advantage of more general concepts. For example, since moving a document on the screen is the equivalent of picking up a piece of paper and walking somewhere with it, there is no 'send mail' command. You simply move it to a picture of an out–basket. Nor is there a 'receive mail' command. New mail appears in the in–basket as it is received. When new mail is waiting, an envelope appears in the picture of the in–basket (see figure 1). This is a simple, familiar, nontechnical approach to computer mail. And it's easy once the physical–office metaphor is adopted!

While we want an analogy with the physical world for familiarity, we don't want to limit ourselves to its capabilities. One of the raisons d'être for Star is that physical objects do not provide people with enough power to manage the increasing complexity of the 'information age.' For example, we can take advantage of the computer's ability to search rapidly by providing a search function for its electronic file drawers, thus helping to solve the long–standing problem of lost files."

(David Smith, Charles Irby, Ralph Kimball, Bill Verplank and Eric Harslem, 1982)

David Canfield Smith, Charles Irby, Ralph Kimball, Bill Verplank and Eric Harslem (1982). "Designing the Star User Interface: The Star user interface adheres rigorously to a small set of principles designed to make the system seem friendly by simplifying the human–machine interface." Reprinted from Byte, issue 4/1982, pp. 242–282.




1982 • alien environment • analogy • Bill Verplank • black and white • Byte (magazine) • Charles Irby • common metaphorscomputer history • computer system • conceptual model • concrete objects • David Smith • desktop metaphor • digital analogues • display screen • electronic mail • electronic metaphor • electronic world • Eric Harslem • familiar analogies • familiarityfiles and foldersfiling cabinetfolderGUIinformation ageinterface metaphor • international mail • intraoffice mail • mailbox • memo • office environment • office metaphorold-world equivalents • operational behaviour • physical metaphor • physical world • Ralph Kimball • resemblanceskeuomorphismvisual analogyvisual metaphorWYSIWYG • Xerox Corporation • Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)Xerox PARCXerox Star PC


Simon Perkins
20 JANUARY 2014

The Lake House: narrative film that exploits circular structure



2006across time • Alejandro Agresti • between past and presentcausality • Christopher Plummer • chronological time • circular narrative • circular narrative structure • circular narrative style • circularitycontemporary present • correspondence • David Auburn • deathdoghouse • Il Mare (2000) • Keanu Reeves • lake • letter writinglove storymailbox • melancholia • passage of time • Persuasion (Jane Austen) • plot structuresportal (science fiction)remaking film • romantic drama • Sandra Bullock • separate points in time • simultaneityspeculative fiction • The Lake House (2006) • time


Simon Perkins

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