Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

In Appreciation of Jef Raskin

(This is a link to the Finnish translation, courtesy of Oskary Laine.)

Jef Raskin, a remarkable person, died recently (26 Feb., 2005). He led a rich life. I first met him when he was a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in the early 1970s, and although his degree was in music, he was a professor of art, doing computer science, and art, and music, and well, you name it. He was an accomplished musician on multiple instruments, a conductor and composer, an artist with several major exhibits, an inventor of light-weight, radio controlled airplanes (and science editor of a model airplane magazine), a writer, inventor of the term "Information appliance" and one of the first example products thereof (The Canon Cat), and along the way, the person who started the Macintosh project at Apple computer.

More about Jef at: http://www.digibarn.com/friends/jef-raskin/index.html and http://jef.raskincenter.org/home/index.html

He was a friend since his days UCSD. He and I disagreed continually, in part, because that is how we both learned. It was wonderful to disagree with Jef, because his quick wit and deep intelligence meant you had to think through your arguments very carefully, for if they were flawed, he would find those flaws. We both loved those interactions, for this was what Jef loved to do -- to examine the fundamentals of everything, as deeply as possible. If you would agree with what he said, gee, what else would there be to say, but if you disagreed, ah, then one could get down to the issues.

What did we disagree about? Everything, even where to live: when I left UCSD to work for Apple, he wanted me to live in Pacifica, near his wonderful home on a hilltop near the ocean. I ended up closer to the heart of Silicon Valley, with a shorter commute.

But this note is not to commemorate his life, nor to discuss his book (The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems), but rather to discuss his latest project, Archy, also known as THE (as in The Human Interface). (See the interview in Ubiquity with Aza Raskin, Jef’s son, about Archy.) To learn about Archy, go to Raskin's Center for Human Interfaces.

The philosophy of Archy, among other things, is to eliminate the artificial distinction between the Operating System and applications (just as in Jef's pioneering Canon Cat, where he eliminated the notion of files and documents). Why not make it that any command can be invoked at any time? In other words, to add a different capability to the system, we don't need to write a specialized application, with its specialized command structure, but rather leverage the commands that already exist and add any news ones that might be required. Among other things, this guarantees a consistency of operation not otherwise possible when each application has to rebuild many of the functions already existing in other applications.

Archy borrows from the pioneering work of Ken Perlin's Pad system, so that moving around material is done by zooming and panning (see the Pad system initially developed by Perlin and Fox and then by Hollan and colleagues:

Perlin, K., & Fox, D. (1993). Pad: An alternative approach to the computer interface. Proceedings of 1993 ACM SIGGRAPH Conference.

Bederson, B. B., Hollan, J. D., Ken Perlin, J. M., Bacon, D., & Furnas, G. (1996). Pad++: A zoomable graphical sketchpad for exploring alternate interface physics. Journal of Visual Languages and Computing, 7, 3-31.

For a demo of Archy's zooming, see http://rchi.raskincenter.org/demos/zoomdemo.swf.

I still have not fully digested Archy, but I urge more people to investigate the precepts, especially people who think that we have reached a dead end in the development of interaction paradigms for text. (I have made this claim, for example, arguing that although many novel interaction schemes are being -- and will be -- developed, for writing pure text, such as this essay, the mouse, keyboard, and screen serves me well. Does it?)

But in the spirit of my continuing and fruitful debate with Jef, let me question the utility of Zooming. Although the zooming capabilities of Pad and Pad++ have long fascinated me, I have never been able to understand exactly how it should be used. Even in the Archy demo of zooming, although it is fun to zoom in on some tiny, barely visible speck and discover it is an entire manuscript, it is not clear to me that zooming in and out is an efficient way of navigation. (It makes for fantastic demos, however.)

That minor critique aside, read Jef's book, examine the Archy site. And look for Jef's new book, The Humane Environment, now in development at Addison-Wesley.

As Jef said to me in our last communication, shortly before he died, "Give Archy a try. It adds capabilities every day, and you will not believe how easy it is to grow on this framework without losing its interface qualities."

A remarkable person: a remarkable set of achievements.

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