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The “Grunt and Point” Interface of the Modern Computer

30 Jan , 2015  

A recent episode of the podcast 99% Invisible discussed the interface of the modern computer, specifically that of iPhones and Pads. These products are widely considered to be so simple that babies, toddlers, and people of all ages can use them.

However, Christina Englebart, daughter of Douglas Englebart, the creator of the mouse, argues:

“When we prioritize simple, user-friendly devices over more complex, learnable ones, we limit ourselves, and we might miss out on important ideas….Today’s user interface and the modern computer is what I call ‘grunt and point.’ It’s very primitive communication.”

In the 1960’s, Christina’s father, Douglas Englebart, created the mouse and an accompanying “keyset.” He was a pioneer and visionary in his field, and he and his research team created entire online collaboration systems, experimenting with video conferencing, collaborative text editing, outlining tools, hyperlinks, and pioneered concepts that would later become modern day Google Docs. He died in 2013.




In the late 1970’s, Englebart’s team ran out of funding and some of his researchers began working at Xerox PARC and working on the mouse and keyboard prototype. Then, in 1979, Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and first came across this prototype.

Steve Jobs found the mouse and keyset intriguing, but dismissed the idea altogether, as it was considered too costly, clunky and complicated. Jobs was known for constantly driving his team to create products that were as simple and user-friendly as possible. In 1980, a memo was sent to Apple employees saying that the mouse would only have one button.

At that time, Englebart knew that learning how to use the mouse and keyboard set was challenging. But for him, the priority was not ease of use. He wanted the inputs for the computer inputs to be as powerful as possible, and that required some complexity. He imagined that consumers would learn how to use the mouse and keyset slowly over time, like how one learns to operate a car.

Steve Jobs knew that consumers wanted immediate gratification, and would not be patient enough to spend months learning how to use a new computer. He knew that they would want to buy it, take it home, figure it out in the first few minutes and immediately begin using it. This materialized, and now we see many videos on Youtube showing babies and toddlers operating Apple products perfectly.

However Englebart was not satisfied with the Apple interface:

“Englebart used to compare the sleek, simplified Apple products to a tricycle. You don’t need any special training to operate a tricycle, and that’s fine if you’re just going to go around the block. If you’re trying to go up a hill or go a long distance, you want a real bike. The kind with gears and brakes– the kind that takes time to learn how to steer and balance on.”

Though the ease-of-use side of the argument has mostly won out, Engelbart’s philosophy continues to influence technology. Many are using his techniques to create more complex devices and systems. So it looks like the moral of the story is: “The best design may be the one that gives us a clear path to learning if we choose to.”

Read the full story

99% Invisible is a “tiny radio show and podcast” about design and architecture, created by Roman Mars (@romanmars) and based out of Oakland, CA. Fast Company named Mars one of 100 Most Creative People in 2013.

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