"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.
"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)
"When in 2003 I came across the KDE program KDirStat (http://kdirstat.sourceforge.net), 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 (http://w3.win.tue.nl/nl/onderzoek/onderzoek_informatica/visualization/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 (http://www.win.tue.nl/~vanwijk/stm.pdf) and cushion treemaps (http://www.win.tue.nl/~vanwijk/ctm.pdf).
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 (http://www.derlien.com/), 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)
"In 1973, the first graphical user interface was built at PARC, using the desktop as a metaphor. The UI introduced windows, icons, menus, file management, and tool palettes. Looking back at the first screenshots of this first GUI, the designs feel familiar even now. In 1974 PARC developed a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get cut & paste interface, and in 1975 the demonstrated pop-up menus. The desktop concept was pushed quite a bit further by 1981 in the commercial Xerox Star PC interface, which was an important influence for the PC UI's created at Microsoft, Apple, NeXT, and Sun Microsystems in the 80's and 90's."
(Mike Kruzeniski, 17 February 2011)
"The concept behind Illustrator 88 was so new that it needed a video tape to explain what it did and how to use it. For example, how would you have known how to use the Pen Tool, had you never seen one before? How would you have known about direction lines and anchor points? The Pen Tool is now available in most graphics applications, and we almost take it for granted."
(Rufus Deuchler, 30 April 2009)
[It's good to be reminded of the debt owed by graphic design to information technology.]