[EAS]Interface Metaphors?

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Dec 5 21:47:53 EST 2001

Subject:   Interface Metaphors?

(from NewsScan Daily, 5 December 2001)

Many IT usability experts acknowledge that the desktop metaphor, which
arose from early-1970s work at Xerox PARC, is past its prime as a
computer interface, but there are competing proposals for what to do
next. One contender is the Scopeware system developed by Yale computer
scientist David Gelernter, who heads up a new company called Mirror
Worlds. Scopeware  uses a diary metaphor, based on the notion that
whatever we have created, modified or looked at most recently is
probably most important to us.  Scopeware uses time as an organizing
principle and sorts information chronologically into prearranged
categories. Inxight Software, a Xerox-funded startup, has developed
Star Tree, an alternative that uses space, rather than time, as an
organizing principle through on-screen icons whose relationship to
each other is displayed through lines linking them together in a
family-tree-type pattern. Meanwhile, Microsoft is busy developing its
own successor to the desktop, focusing on 3D space to organize files.
Microsoft's Task Gallery uses a metaphor of multiple rooms in which
documents are "hung" on a wall until their needed. By moving the 
mouse around the screen, the user can "walk" from room to room and
examine the miniature icons that represent Word documents, Web pages
and Adobe files, etc. Meanwhile, usability expert Don Norman thinks
it's time to throw out the "metaphor" altogether: "The main problem
with the metaphor is that it's just a stand-in for something else.
It's not the thing you're using. It may help a beginner user for the
first 15 minutes, but after that it gets in the way. When I drive I
don't need metaphors. I turn the steering wheel left, and I go left."
(Technology Review Dec 2001)

While the proposed alternatives to the desktop metaphor may seem
rather idiosyncratic, so is Don Norman's outright dismissal of
metaphor. Trips through what is usually some combination of
organizational and intellectual space are not drives on a highway.
They are journeys driven by association, and as such metaphor seems to
me a given. The interface software may just have to evolve enough so
that we can each develop our own metaphor(s). 

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