This calculator app from Berger & Föhr has been making waves in the blogosphere and I wanted to mention it not because it’s pretty and novel – which, it is, and that’s all fine and good – but because of what it represents.
When computers started they were a complete abstraction, lines of text that did things inside this box. Later the then-fledgling Apple added a GUI to give a better interaction between human and that mystery backend. They used metaphors in both interactions and terminology. The “desktop” held “folders” with “files” in them – none of these things exist, but it’s a good way to communicate it to the users, especially when all of this was starting and people were initially confused.
Since then, we’ve come a long way. That was 1983, just a hair short of thirty years ago. Ten years before I was born. We’ve brought up an entire new generation of people who have grown up and just accept these things; it’s not really that hard of an abstraction anymore. So it’s cool (for me, as part of that new generation) to see these things being streamlined and refined past the typical, and by that I mean, clunky and old school.
You pick up a physical calculator and you have buttons for operations because a) that’s how it’s always been and b) that’s really all you can do. You can rearrange them, sure, or maybe change how they work, but ultimately they have to be there in some capacity. Enter touchscreens. Not really new either, we’ve had iPhones for five years now, yet the calculator apps have always included the operator buttons as a direct analogue for the physical kind. They just remade it directly. Easy to understand? Sure. Familiar? Yeah. Efficient? Not really, no.
Again, and I said it a mere paragraph up, that’s so cool. We can make things better.
We’re at the point where we’re comfortable enough with the old abstractions to go past them and make new ones – more efficient ones. I think I’ve written about it before, but the ultimate UI is blank. At it’s ultimate, perfect state the program (whatever it is) should work in such a way that it always knows what you want to do. Since that’s an extraordinarily tall order, we do have to settle with buttons and elements as we do now. Gestures are good, but they don’t always work and they don’t always do what you want them to do, which goes against the above ideal. In this case the compromise is struck because it’s kept (in theory) simple and done in such a way that is easy to remember and use. Having never used it I can’t truly comment, but. With that said, if every app had it’s entirely own set of gestures (which is something we’re running into recently) it becomes even more convoluted and in the end less useful. It’s inefficient to always have to look up what the gestures to do an action is; this too goes against the ideal.
TL;DR We can make new abstractions because the UI is evolving and the new generation is used to it, which is both a power and a responsibility. And wherein I reveal my age.
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