Getting Geeky: Human Interface Design

Just try to pour tea from this teapot

Just try to pour tea from this teapot

It’s been a while since WC got down and geeky. And there’s a roiling dispute in the software community that’s worth a look: human interface design, the way that complex gadgets are presented to us, the intended users. Human interface design is more than how we interact with our gadgets. WC was on a trip to Chicago once, entered an elevator of a high rise office building, bound for the 55th Floor, and there were no elevator buttons. Solid, dark glass panels on each side of the doors. No visible controls. How did it work? Voice recognition? Telepathy? WC stood there like a rube until another passenger boarded, and moved his hand near the glass and the buttons appeared. Cool tech; lousy human interface.

Donald Norman is probably the leading authority on human interface design. He has written some excellent lay books on the art and science. The Design of Everyday Things and Things That Make Us Smart are particularly good. Bruce Tognazzini was the director of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines group from early in the Macintosh development, and has blogged on computer/human interfaces for decades now. Norman and Tog have co-authored an article sharply criticizing Apple’s drift from intelligent, user-friendly interface design in recent years. When two of the world’s experts on interface design claim that Apple is giving design a bad name, well, you are inclined to pay attention.

But let’s give another example: WC writes this blog using WordPress, most often directly over the internet, using Safari, Apple’s web browser. About a year ago, WordPress, accessed via Safari, started throwing up a modal dialogue,1 asking if WC really wanted to leave the page. If WC clicked on the “Stay on Page” button, he was presented with a blank page and all of his work was lost. If WC clicked on “Leave,” he was also presented with a blank page and all of his work was lost. There was no “Undo.” It was maddening. It seemed to happen at random intervals.

It took a long time to run down what was going on. One of Apple’s upgrades to the Mac operating system had turned “Gestures” on. There’s a two-fingered gesture that Safari interprets as “Go to a new page.” WC was moving his fingers while they were in contact with his computer mouse, which interpreted the movement as a “Gesture.” Safari’s implementation of the “Gesture” was flawed. The solution was to turn “Gestures” off. The problem wasn’t WC’s nervous fingers and loose mouse grip; it was Apple’s decision to turn on a feature WC didn’t want or use, and Apple’s poor programming that created a bug.

What was brilliant about the original Mac operating system was its revolutionary implementation of the human-computer interface. Entire books have been written on this; WC won’t try to recap them here. Building on the Xerox PARC research, Apple made computers accessible to non-programmers for the first time. But since then, Norman and Tog argue, Apple has drifted away from those first principles. Do you know how to “Undo” something on your iPhone or iPad? You shake it.2 How do you know that? It’s a secret, WC supposes; you certainly can’t discover it looking at on-screen options. It’s so obscure most third-party application developers don’t bother to implement it, defeating the goal of a consistent interface. In fact, “Gestures” generally violate principles of interface design because there is little, if any, signal to the user as to what they are, how to use them, or how to avoid them. When the same gesture made with one, two or three fingers accomplishes very different things, you are inviting disaster. And violating human interface principles.

Some of the blame can be laid on Apple’s decision to bring elements of its iOS, the operating system for its iWhatever devices, over to the Mac. But Norman and Tog argue that it’s more than that, that Apple has moved to a minimalist approach, based on a misinterpretation of German designer Dieter Rams’ minimalist principles. And a misguided effort to raise esthetics over usability. Default fonts, for example, have gotten smaller, grayer and harder to read over successive evolutions of Mac operating systems.3 But they look great. A classic instance of poor human interface design.

Has Apple lost its way? Is Jonathan Ivy, Apple’s much-praised design guru, lading Apple away from the very strengths that made Apple’s interface the model for the industry? Or is it just a bunch of cranky old men with failing vision – including WC – grousing about change? The issues have the the developer and power user community in a dither. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Apple does in response.


  1. A “modal dialogue” is something appearing on your screen that demands action before the computer will let you do anything else. They are annoying, and are only supposed to be used for something pretty urgent. 
  2. Go ahead, on your iPhone create a new Note, type something and then shake your iPhone. You’ll get a modal dialogue asking if you want to Undo. 
  3. Sure, a power user might no how to root around in Preferences or in the Unix underbelly via Terminal and change the System Fonts to something legible. But an ordinary user isn’t likely to figure that out (and shouldn’t have to) and it often breaks formatting in applications. You can also turn on the Accessibility features in the Preferences. That’s great, isn’t it, tell your users they have a disability?