10. Time Factors in Interface Design for Augmenting Human Intellect
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The current generation of user interfaces (GUI) is
predominantly oriented towards the visual and spatial section of the human
cognitive spectrum. A sample of representative articles, like the CHI
conferences over the last years, yields an overwhelming percentage of works
dealing with visual aspects, and very few dealing with time factors explicitly.
A notable exception is Tognazzini (1993), as he explicitly links the factor of
time to "magic", and he details the working methods of stage magicians as
"manipulations of time" (p. 359). In order to get a better insight into the
possible long-terrm effects and consequences of a predominantly visual
orientation, we might apply the media theoretical analyses of Innis and McLuhan
(Chandler) to HCI paradigms (in Kuhnian, 1962, sense).
It is also instructive to note an apparent theoretical neglect
of time factors by computer science (Halang). If we observe industrial systems
development in the last 15 years, we get the impression that negative time
factors are a prime marketing strategy of the PC industry: systems seem to be
purposefully designed to be so slow to be practically useless when they are not
run on the latest and most powerful hardware on the market. A closer examination
of industry system design policy yields the enormous attraction of GUI design
and comparative neglect of time factors: The mass market of "non-computer nerd"
users that was opened with the Macintosh has turned out to set a standard that
was rigidly adhered to, even where the design limitations of this 1984 machine
were since long broken by present hardware power (Common). This translates again
into a Kuhnian paradigm, whose stability is not determined by what is
technically possible, or rationally advisable, but by social standards of the
"least common denominator" and "no experiments, please" flavor. As there is a
huge mass market, there is also a tremendous inertia, and no industrial player
wants to play the guinea pig trying out any new ideas and approaches, especially
not the largest one, who seems to have opted for the technically most inferior
possibility (Businessweek). Thus, there has been little progress beyond the
basic design decisions of the Macintosh. But, as everyone notices, these "tried
and trusted" paradigms seem to be wearing out (Landauer, Norman), the market
saturation has peaked, and present systems seem to be headed towards a
continuous asymptotic approximation of Dinosaur efficiency.
Time factors were of prime importance in the earlier mini
computer generation. Again in Kuhnian sense, there was a complete reversal of
paradigms between mini computers, early microcomputers, and the present
generation of Macintosh-Style PCs. In the older paradigm of minis, design
constraints were imposed by the coupling of a fast hard disk with relatively
small computer power (PDP type), which forced the systems designers to
painstakingly optimize systems performance around that combination, resulting in
such unrepeated feats of temporal efficiency as APL, MUMPS. These were
undoubtedly the most powerful programming languages (aka HCI) ever invented by
man, and just in terms of pure efficiency, present systems are a big step
backwards. But these systems were also cryptic and unforgiving, hard to train,
and hard to maintain, and so there were good reasons for the paradigm switch.
And, of course, it generates more business volume, when millions of users are
catered, than a few thousand.
We come back to the magic: The "olden days" of computing were
an age of wizards, and the connection with Tognazzini's article, the "magic
factor" gives an indication of a time efficiency that cannot be re-gained by
predominantly a visual / spatial oriented framework, once it has given up
control of the time factor. One typical effect of the GUI mouse access is, that
it slows the user down by about a factor of ten, compared to the very rapid
keyboard input of hotkeys (or command line sequences). Of course to be that
fast, the user has to have memorized all the command key sequences, and must be
a touch-typist. With the complexity of today's menu interfaces, it is impossible
to learn them all (especially when every vendor uses different hotkeys for
equivalent functions, or, as Microsoft does, creates a new assignment with every
new release). As the APL solution shows us, there is a different strategy
possible, to contain menu depth and complexity by combinatorial strategies, but
this is not easy to learn.
For the "Augmentation of Human Intellect" (Engelbart), the
time factor seems to be crucial. Unfortunately, the "magic effect" also causes
problems with verification and rationalization by academic standards. This may
be a reason why Engelbart has spent a lifetime churning out ideas of which the
largest portion still remains to be recognized, let alone be put into wide
usage. As was already pointed out, time is a blind spot of computer science (we
may read Feyerabend for possible underlying reasons why this may be so). In the
literature, there is a body of work around "Flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, Karn 1997:
64). This is a somewhat loose term for hard-to-define intellect-augmentation
effects that can occur, when expert work is able to proceed in uninterrupted
sequences of cumulative efficiency. In this, the time factor is critical, since
it is interrelated with the human attention span and capacity of the short term
memory, the best known of which in the 'flicker fusion effect' utilized in movie
projection (Pöppel 1978-1995). Maximum time lag of about 1/10 sec seems
imperative. Noticeable augmentation effects are attained mainly when a high
level of user training and expertise is started with at the beginning.
Unfortunately, since the "expert" or "power user" population, that would benefit
most from this research, is much smaller than the "general user" population that
is catered for by the common GUI interface, the financial rewards for such
R&D are too small for large-scale industry efforts. Progress will likely
depend on individual efforts, like Engelbart's. In (Goppold), a time oriented
HCI design is presented, that seeks to regain the efficiency factors of the
former computing generations, but is based on a widely available platform, the
Java VM, and extensively uses the hypertext principle to make it accessible for
large user populations. A "royal road" to travel is to present an easy "free for
all" GUI interface, coupled with an industry standardized end-user programming
facility (EUPL), and user interface language (UIL). This way, the would-be power
user can design all hotkey and shortcut combinations to her own heart's content.
Of all the functionality of a system, less than 10 percent is used regularly. If
these functions can be streamlined and programmed individually, the power user
community will be ideally catered.
Conclusions: Time factors are an underrepresented but crucial
factor in HCI design. Their influence on the "Augmentation of Human Intellect"
makes their closer consideration a necessity, since presently, the mass market
saturation with PC systems has reached a ceiling, and further improvements
cannot be gained by "more features" in "more powerful hardware boxes", but by
more "natural intelligence" (as opposed to AI) to augment the power of the
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