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Humane Interfaces: Setting the Record Straight

Posted by eitan on December 14, 2005 at 8:20 AM PST

Every so often I go and read the wisdom of elharo over at

So today I came across this specific entry discussing "humane" interfaces:

Here is a snippet from elharo's blog entry:

"More buttons/methods does not make an object more powerful or
more humane, quite the opposite in fact. Simplicity is a
virtue. Smaller is better."

Hearing stuff like this makes my blood boil. I am a disciple
of Jef Raskin (z"l), the person who designed the first Macintosh,
the author of the book "The Humane Interface" (THI).

My goal in this entry is very simple: to prevent the perversion
of the meaning of the word "Humane", to set the record straight.

I read Raskin's THI a number of years ago, and don't have it in
front of me at the moment.

The claim made by elharo is simple:

    that an apple iPod user interface, or the imac's new
    remote control, with its 4-5 buttons is better or
    superior to the 100-button remotes from hp and gateway.

That's absolute nonsense.

The 100-button remotes are infinitely better. The ipod has
serious usability issues. The problem was easily illustrated
to me one day when I tried to teach my poor daughter to use the
ipod's interface a year or two ago (she was 4 or 5 years old).

The poor girl was getting so frustrated that pushing the sequence
of buttons I instructed her to push did not have the desired outcome.
Instead of scrolling a song list, the volume would go up!

Why?? The ipod only has three or four buttons. That's not enough
to express 100 different operations. So the buttons must be overloaded; they must be made modal. That is, the same button
does different things in different contexts. This is precisely
what you want to _avoid_ when designing a _humane_ interface. With the 100-button remote, there's no ambiguity, no context, no modality.

With the 100-button remote, you don't have to remember to press a sequence of buttons in a specific order, with specific time intervals between the button presses. With the 100-button remote, the operation boils down to pressing a single button.

Even better: once you've performed an operation once or twice, you've formed the habit. Doing the same operation again later would take you no time, because you now know that the second button from the left on the top row is the one you want.

I have nothing against the apple ipod. it just has an in-humane
interface, that's all.

Why am I talking about iPods on a Java weblog? Because the same principle behind designing the interface for a remote control applies to designing humane interfaces in our software applications. elharo brought up remotes as an analogy in the context of designing interfaces for List or Array objects, stating that such a class should have a minimum of methods, and that its design was consequently better.

We're all in one way or another responsible for designing interfaces. Let's make sure they're humane. If you haven't already read THI, I highly recommend you do. Here's the link: