This post makes me feel old. I sound a little like my father, or grandfather. And who knows, at 43, maybe I’m crossing over into that time where adapting to changes takes a little more effort than my roll-with-it 20′s and 30′s.
In the tech space, you live like a shark. You can’t stop swimming forward or you die. I get it. From a business perspective tech companies need to update and refine their products continually to keep up with competitors and maintain their brand image as being leading edge or whatever. I know Google and other companies are looking 10 years ahead at a time when much more will be in the ‘cloud’ and some of the interface conventions of the past won’t be necessary. I know it’s all coming. Still, tech companies do a notoriously poor job of smoothly introducing changes. Maybe this happens because they have their eyes so far into the future that they aren’t watching the present.
Take for example iTunes. I’ve had versions of iTunes from the beginning. I update regularly and I have to say, the latest version is decidedly more difficult to get used to. I expect an initial level of irritation with any update. That’s just the by-product of reorientation. But even now, weeks later, jumping from the store to my devices, populating playlists, transferring downloaded content to my devices, etc. feels less obvious. I find myself jumping back and forth from left to right trying to remember which button does what and where those playlists are hidden and how I add to them. I can see what they were going for. Maybe they’re even there from that purist’s perspective. I’ve had trouble adapting though. I have to believe I’m not the only one.
The removal of ‘Save As’ from Apple software as a result of OS “improvements” also confounds me. For many, many years people have been using Save As. In theory, if I am using Timemachine (the Apple OS backup software), it makes more sense to track versions by timestamp and to auto-save. This prevents data loss, etc. All good. Except that many people (like me) rename our files for different drafts as they are passed to others. The minute a document is shared the whole TimeMachine-as-auto-save-version-backup thing begins to fall apart a little for me.
Of mice and men.
No doubt today’s changes will someday seem as natural as the Mouse/Desktop construct does now. And it’s worth nothing that the Mouse/Desktop probably took some getting used to for programmers more accustom to typing in cryptic command lines.
However, the brilliance of the Mouse/Desktop was that it replicated something we were all intuitively familiar with from the physical world- pushing objects around on a physical space and using a pointed object to highlight or mark space. I believe that’s why touch screens were so easy to get used to as well. They were tactile changes that mirrored physical world cause-and-effect experiences.
Many of the enhancements to interfaces today are reductive. We’re removing scroll bars, buttons, and tools because a fundamental of UX theory, which is to remove the unnecessary. However, the reduction happening now is not accompanied by a more intuitive replacement. Worse, in some instances leaps are being made between devices. I understand removing scroll bars from an iPad but Safari does this on my laptop too, which when plugged into a monitor and used with an adjunct keyboard and mouse, is a little more of a nuisance.
Where the mouse eliminated the need for cryptic command lines and replaced them with a pointer we could manipulate similar to a prosthetic limb, now menu options simply disappear in favor of processes that happen in the background. ‘Save As’ was a conscious choice. TimeMachine happens “unconsciously”, so the user is detached from it. TimeMachine also assumes file indexing and naming responsibility which is perhaps a power I don’t want to give up because renaming files may have benefits, especially in version tracking across a shared userbase.
In UX discussions I often come back to the steering wheel in a car as a useful analogy. In the United States that steering wheel is usually roughly the same shape and always on the left side of the vehicle. Sure, we could move it right, change it’s form, make it a joystick, etc. in the name of making some new and novel. Doing so, however, creates friction with how people have spent the last decades learning to drive.
Could be migrate toward something radically different? Absolutely. Should we? Perhaps. But to do so, smaller, incremental changes should be introduced over time so that the higher order – the actual utility of the interface – is not so radically different at any one release, that it stymies attempts to extract usefulness from it. This of course is in conflict with the idea of releasing something new, novel and headline worthy – which is the goal of any tech company looking to make or keep a name for itself. What’s right for the user is often not what’s right for the marketing game. That’s unfortunate.
Apple, I think, has been stepping a little too far lately. I hope they continue to sprint ahead and reinvent the basic mechanics of digital interaction. I’d just like it if, when they ask us to run along with them, they’d set a pace where we wouldn’t be slowed down by having to adapt to their leaps of intuition, nor would we be left behind because they sprinted too far too fast.