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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
29 OCTOBER 2013

Skeuomorphism has fallen out of favour in recent years

"Skeuomorphism has fallen out of favour in recent years, and is almost regarded as a dirty word by many in the design community. Apple this week announced a radical revision to the approach at its annual developer conference in California and its new mobile operating system will ditch real world visual metaphors in favour of a stripped–back minimalist approach. ... The podcast app recently lost its reel–to–reel tape deck look, a reference which would have been lost on many younger smartphone users. Not everyone will be pleased with the decision though, and some regret the decline of the skeuomorph."

(Sam Judah, 3 June 2013, BBC News Magazine)



Apple OS • binder • clipboard • de-facto symbol • desktop metaphor • envelope • golden compass • GUIinterface designinterface metaphor • jotting paper • leather-bound desk blotter • mimesismimicry • mobile operating system • nostalgic yearningoffice metaphorold-world equivalentsreal world objectsreal world visual metaphor • red wax seal • representational systemsresemblancescissorsskeuomorphskeuomorphic designskeuomorphismsoftware programme • sticky notes • trash canUIvisual metaphor • Windows 7


Simon Perkins
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.



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


Simon Perkins

Nina Wenhart's blog on the prehysteries of new media

"this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today."

(Nina Wenhart, 26/06/2008)



20th centuryAlan Turingapplied researchARarchiveArs Electronicaart • art + science • art + technologyart of codeartificial intelligenceartificial life • artistic molecules • artistic practice • artistic software • artistsASCIIASCII-Artatom • atomium • audiofiles • augmented realityavant-gardebody • Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE) • code art • cold warcollection • collection of resources • computercomputer animationcomputer graphicscomputer history • computer programming language • computer research • computer sculptureconcept artconceptual artconceptualisationconcrete poetry • copy-it-right • creative practicecritical theorycross-disciplinaryculture industrycuratingcurationcut-up techniquecybernetic artCybernetic Serendipitycyberneticscyberpunkcyberspacecyborgdata miningdata visualisationdesign research • dream machine • E.A.T. • early new media • Edward Ihnatowiczengineers • Eugen Roth • exhibitionsexpanded cinemaexperimental musicexperimentation • female artists and digital media • flaneur • flaneuring on the net • Fluxusfoundgenerative artgenetic artglitch • Gordon Pask • GPSgraffiti • Grey Walter • GUI • hackers and painters • hackinghacktivismHCIHerbert FrankehistorieshistoryhypermediahypertextIannis Xenakisimagineeringinformation theoryinsightinstructionsinteractive artinterdisciplinaryInternet • Ivan Picelj • Jack Burnham • Julije Knifer • Ken Rinaldo • kinetic sculpture • Lidija Merenik • live visualsmagic • Manchester Mark 1 • manifestomappingmediamedia archaeologymedia art • media art histories • minimalism • mother of all demos • mousemusical scorenetartnew medianew media art • new media exhibition • new media festival • Nina Wenhart • open sourceopen space • out of print • particle systems • Paul Graham • performance • phonesthesia • playlistpoetrypoliticspractice-led • prehysteries of new media • prehystories of new mediaProcessing (software)programmingprogramming languageprojectspsychogeographyradio artrare • re:place • real-timeresearch artefactresources • retyped • ridiculous • rotten + forgotten • SAIC • sandin image processor • School of the Art Institute of Chicagoscientific visualisation • screen-based • SIGGRAPHSituationistsslide projectorslit-scansoftwaresoftware studiesspeculative designspeculative research • Stewart Brand • surveillancetactical mediataggingtechniquetechnologytelecommunicationtelematic arttelematic experiencetext • textparts • Theo Jansentheoretical contexttheory buildingtimeline • Turing Test • ubiquitous computingunabomberundergraduate researchvideo artvideo synthesizervirtual realityvisual musicvisual research • Vladimir Bonacic • VRWalter Benjaminwearable computing • Williams Tube • world fair • world machine • Xerox PARCZKM • [Nove] tendencije


Simon Perkins
22 MARCH 2011

WinDirStat: Windows Directory Statistics

"When in 2003 I came across the KDE program KDirStat (, I was fascinated and enthusiastic about it, as it is probably the same with many others. I had been thinking of writing a disk usage tool before, and saw: that's it!

SequoiaView ( was around, but KDirStat's concept of coupling a tree list view with a treemap was unrivaled, and I didn't find anything equivalent for MS Windows. So I wrote WinDirStat, using Mark Bruls, Kees Huizing, Jarke J. vanWijk, and Huub van de Wetering's papers on squarified treemaps ( and cushion treemaps (

I didn't worry too much about the functionality but simply cloned KDirStat. The pacman is not my idea, the extension list is. I tried to size and position each GUI element optimally and to avoid modal dialogue boxes. The program should output much information while requiring few user input. When I thought it was complete, I gave it to my sister and watched her interaction with the software. That gave me another two weeks of work to do. This procedure, together with the testplan, secured WinDirStat's quality.

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine wrote Disc Inventory X (, a clone for Mac OS X.

That's the story so far. Oliver has taken responsibility for the project, many translations have been contributed. I've largely switched to Linux and observe WinDirStat's amazing download numbers. I hope we can provide some new version slowly but surely."

(Bernhard Seifert, 2010–07–28)



2003application • Bernhard Seifert • chartdatadata visualisation • Disc Inventory X • disk usage • GUIhierarchy • Huub van de Wetering • ICTinformation aestheticsinnovationiteration • Jarke J. vanWijk • KDE • KDirStat • Kees Huizing • Mac OS X • Mark Bruls • MicrosoftMicrosoft Windows • MS Windows • Oliver Schneider • Pac-Manproduct design • SequoiaView • softwaresoftware programmesolution • squarified treemaps • technologytool • tree list view • tree structure • treemap • visualisation • WinDirStat


Simon Perkins

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