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Just Good Enough

2011-09-08 15:04:06.36837+00 by petronius 2 comments

Slate has a nice little slide show on antique typewriters from a collection in Milwaukee. They show inventors groping toward a practical machine, and mostly not quite getting there. What is interesting is that one of the big problems was the interface; how will you indicate which letter to print? Since the task was entirely new they had no precedent to fall back upon, and you see things with levers, cranks, and even a piano-type keyboard being tried out. Then about 1874 somebody stumbles on the QWERTY arrangement to solve the problem of a too-fast typist, and we are still using it today.

I think the interesting thing here is that we found an interface solution that was just good enough, and have resisted improvements ever since. Obviously there was a huge demand for a typing machine, and the first pracical version exploded the market, and nobody had time to figure out a better keyboard. By the time they did, the established base of QWERTY users was so large nobody wanted to change, since the alternatives, while faster, weren't that much faster. Now flash forward to today and imagine what other inferfaces we might develope for our computers. We've tried text, and while it is very powerful it is a tool for experts. The Xerox drag and drop system was so big an inprovement it helped explode the computer market (once Jobs and Gates got a hold of it) so much that we are pretty much stock with it. It became just good enough at exactly the right time to become locked in place

[ related topics: Invention and Design Interface issues ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2011-09-12 16:08:22.445427+00 by: Dan Lyke

I don't know whether or not Dvorak is any better than QWERTY, but it sure seems like most technologies and interfaces reach a point where minor improvements are kept from mass adoption by standardization and social pressures. Automobile controls, bicycle form factors, office chairs, etc.

I think the main thing to examine when looking at how technologies get adopted is not "how much better are they than what's there?", but "what new problem do they solve?". I want a better way to input text, but the technology that wins me over will require less digits than I'm using now. The thing that drags me away from a bash shell will let me easily chain together operations on a set of objects.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-09-12 00:31:43.646008+00 by: brennen [edit history]

Two thoughts:

  1. I'm just not that sold on the Dvorak propaganda.
  2. It seems to me like the last 10-15 years have seen quite a bit of upheaval in interface paradigms. Most people I know spend more time on the web than in any desktop application, and while there's a whole lot of point-and-click there, a lot of the windows-icons-menus part of WIMP feels pretty incidental to it. Meanwhile, smartphones with high-resolution touchscreens have been creeping up for a couple of years now on that moment where you look around and realize that a technology has become ubiquitous. Not much in that space looks or acts a whole lot like the desktops of yore...

...none of which is to imply that I don't think there's quite a bit of room for improvement and experimentation. I see interesting work being done by Apple with their multitouch stuff, people playing with devices like the Kinect, and some really good stuff at the nerdier end of the X window manager spectrum (I use xmonad all day long, and it's pretty great). But it does feel like there's room for at least one more major innovation before we reach the era of this-plugs-right-into-my-nervous-system.