An Inhumane Interface

Snake? Snake? SNAAAAAAAAKE!Our computers are inhumane. When they don’t work right, they can set us back days or weeks, cause frustration and anger, and even lose or destroy irreplaceable information. Even when they work properly, though, they don’t work well.

People just don’t naturally think in terms of programs (or even, for the Apple folks, documents). One task can easily span multiple documents and programs. Unfortunately, computers don’t work that way. Instead, they try to force you to think the way they work, which just causes the kind of grief we’re all familiar with.

If I’m writing an article and need to do some simple math (maybe I need to figure out how many pages my 1500 word article will be), I have to open up another program, wait for it to load and get the answer before I return to my original document. That kind of thing is a concentration-killer and is probably one reason why so many people are now multi-taskers. We have to be because that’s how computers allow us to perform tasks.

So what’s the alternative? Well, wouldn’t it be better if you could just type out a mathematical equation, select it, and tell the computer to find the answer? That way, you don’t have to switch contexts (concentration killer!), switch keyboard commands (why doesn’t ctrl-A work now?), or worry about which application has focus (oops, copied my document instead of the answer).

 Jef Raskin thinks so. Raskin started out as an interface designer for the original Macs and later the Canon Cat (probably the closest thing to his ideal yet and it was released in 1987!). If you had to boil his design philosophy down into one sentence, it would be “modes are bad, from Caps Lock to programs.” Luckily, you don’t have to read just a sentence since his book, The Humane Interface, goes into so much more detail.

Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Raskin’s ideas will be realized in full anytime soon since it requires a total rethinking of computers from the hardware on up. The next best thing would be a set of software tools that imitates the semi-modal commands that Raskin promoted.

That’s where Jef Raskin’s son Aza steps in. His company, Humanized attempts to create applications that run on today’s computers and makes them… well… a little less bad. They currently have two products and a demo. The demo is a relatively straightforward RSS reader that doesn’t do much for me.

The other products are Enso Launcher and Enso Words. Both Enso products are semi-modal, which means that you access them by holding down the Caps Lock and typing commands while they key is down (in contrast to a fully-modal design where you tap a key to enter or leave a state like Caps Lock normally is). They include some basic commands including a four-function calculator. Enso Words is focused on writing and primarily includes a spellchecker, thesaurus, and word counter. Enso Launcher, on the other hand, is much more open-ended.

Enso Launcher allows you to run, close, and minimize programs (or files or directories) by typing. It pre-populates with programs in the Start Menu but you can add any file, directory, or program on your computer with a couple of keystrokes.

I got Enso Launcher a week ago and I love it. I’ve set up my commonly used directories and programs and can bring things up quickly, using muscle memory, and without any serious context-switching. You really have to see the videos to understand how useful it is.

Basically, Enso Launcher gets the highest praise I can give to a program: it makes my computer suck a little less.

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4 Responses to An Inhumane Interface

  1. TheGnat says:

    See, I don’t think modal is bad. I like modal! But then, I’m a natural multitasker. I can’t concentrate unless I’m doing 5 things at once, and preferably engaging all 5 senses and 4 limbs.

    Sadly, the video link hasn’t worked for me as of replying, but I did want to say that at least on Windows, you technically can do anything through typing. I suppose the advent of the mouse eventually caused people to simply not bother to learn the various key commands available. And I’ve found that I’ve never had to change very many key commands, except where functions are entirely different.

    I can, however, see how people have issues with the modal manner in which computers work. Then again, I worked as an UC at Grinnell, and my most common problem was someone complaining about the sound not working when the master sound control was muted…

  2. Will says:

    The general problem with a modal interface is that your muscle memory hurts you rather than helping you. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tried a Word shortcut in Photoshop by habit and had something weird happen. The other problem with modes is that it’s usually not obvious what mode you’re in (for example, when you’re writing something, you’re not looking at the keyboard to see whether or not Caps Lock is on). I find this espcially difficult on Macs where I can easily have an application visible that isn’t actually receiving commands. That is, I’m in a different mode than I think I am.

    A semi-modal interface is better because you have to keep the key pressed down, which manes that you are consciously aware of the modal state that you’re in. There’s a lot more to it of course, but that’s what Raskin’s book is for. 🙂

    Yeah, the Humanized site appears to be down, which is too bad. It’s worth a look once it comes back up.

    It’s not that typing is necessarily better than using the mouse. It’s that you shouldn’t have to switch contexts any more than necessary. If you have to spend 15 seconds typing to get to a particular directory, that’s no better than spending 15 second clicking to get there.

    The cool thing about Enso is that you can easily set up your own commands so that the things you do most often take the fewest keystrokes (and, of course, that means your muscle memory will work for you).

  3. TheGnat says:

    Programmable key commands is one of my favorite parts of Photoshop CS. I didn’t change most of the standard ones, but there were quite a few things I used frequently that previously I had no choice but to use menus.

    On the other hand, I guess I just can’t recall ever having trouble with modes. I always remember what mode I’m in, and generally despise having to hold a key down to stay in a mode. Maybe it’s because I’ve used Photoshop for a very long time, and it is highly modal (between layers and tools, it’s all modal, and a damn good thing too). The moment I switch programs, my muscles seem to know what commands are and aren’t available. But as I said ealier, I was born a multi-tasker and didn’t have to teach myself it.

    On the other hand, I appreciate how some programs have become semi-modal. Browers have adopted tabs, and so have many instant messaging programs. (Technically speaking, these tabs are all seperate instances of the programs, they just act like they aren’t. This is true also of GIMP and Photoshop. Strictly speaking they also are seperate programs working together. However, GIMP makes this painfully obvious, which is why I hate it. Otherwise I would like it because it’s easier to make scripted functions in than Photoshop.)

  4. […] A while ago, in this very space, I waxed rhapsodic about Humanized Enso, a program that aims to bring computers a little closer to Jef Raskin’s […]

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