Thursday, March 27

Only going to ask you one more time: step away from the interface!

Why do so many people in tech management find 3D interface so strangely addictive, when it's clinically proven to be idiot-forming? Techcrunch reports that AT&T has been developing a new web 3D browser, Pogo, based on Mozilla. I'm amongst the readers who reacted with a strong WTF? at the news, though it brings up some important points about interface design, following trends, and remembering history.

I remember my history. Right about when I joined Yahoo! the company cut a deal with Caligari, a maker of 3D software and browser plugins. The two companies collaborated on a 3D visualisation of the main web directory categories of Yahoo! (News, Finance, Sports, etc.) I can't find a video of the interface in action (challenge: can you find one?) but each section of the web directory was represented by a giant icon on a huge green field of grass.

From memory, Yahoo! 3D was something a lot of senior yahoos were interested in as something fun to play with - it really wasn't something the company was expecting to monetize or present as the primary interface for Yahoo! then or in the future. This was in the days of 28.8kbps modem bandwidth, 13" CRTs and Navigator 3.0/IE 3.0. Flying across the football field from one category to another would take about a minute, with frame rates at about 5fps, and you were quite likely to miss the category you were aiming for with the frame rate and lag time.

Yahoo! 3D taught me that desktop web browser interfaces were already  quite mature, and that on the desktop, the old "click on a link with a mouse" routine was widely-understood, easily adopted by new users, and fast to use.

Since then, browser interface design has tried and rejected a few new  ideas, and  the only one I can point to that has really been taken up widely is tabs in the browser, as well as in the web page itself.

Twelve years later, 3D visualization of data and relationships is a powerful tool, but 3D navigation remains a solution without a problem. Why is this so? I can't point you to research on this, but my trusty gut instinct says:



  1. 3D interfaces need 3D input devices and displays. It's too hard to learn to grasp, manipulate and move objects using 2D input devices and displays. It takes too many brain cells to do the interpolation, even for those with strong stomachs and keen to try new  things.

  2. Despite Javascript, AJAX, Flash and all that whizzy coding stuff, websites and web apps are still built using metaphors dredged deep out of print publishing. You can stack a bunch of web pages together and drag them about, sure, but each of those web pages has only two dimensions. I can only interact with the content on a web page when viewing it from "the front". Stacking and dragging are useful for organising large numbers of web pages and bookmarks, sure. But who organises large amounts of web content? A tiny percentage of the internet audience. And that dragging is inevitably going to be easier using folders and tabs until Apple ships me a 3D input device and display with my next Mac.

The other classic mistake I see in these videos of Pogo in action is mimicry without purpose, in this case, mimicking Apple's Cover Flow interface. I betcha nobody at AT&T knows what percentage of Apple's OS X customers actually choose to use Cover Flow (versus not knowing how to turn it off) but I am sure Apple knows and isn't telling.

Cover Flow is chrome: something that's meant to sweeten the sale or upgrade of the operating system, iTunes and iPods, not to be a primary interface mode.

Knowing your new BMW M5 has a gazillion suspension and transmission settings helps you justify your purpose, and six months later, if BMW surveys M5 customers and finds <5% actually mess with the settings? Who cares? We've still sold a lot of M5s.

How do I know Cover Flow is just chrome when I don't have any data? I asked my friends. The responses are all quite similar: even the musicgeekiest friend I have can identify only 30% of his  iTunes library by album art alone. Subtract the albums he originally owned on CD, then subtract the albums he'd owned for years before buying an iPod, then subtract the album covers that actually have the band name and album name on the cover? He's down to <5%.

Don't believe me? Test yourself, I'd love to read about your results.

Meanwhile, who'd regularly use an interface that forced you to stop and think about 95% of the choices available to you?

While website homepages aren't as obscure as album covers, they certainly aren't designed to be recognisable - much less legible - at Cover Flow-sized dimensions. And any new content on them worth clicking on won't be readable unless the Pogo user is viewing at something far greater than 1280x1024px.

AT&T's Pogo mistakes the chrome for the fundamentals, and then tacks it onto its own product without any understanding of its true purpose, like a Chinese manufacturer designing cars that come out looking like a BMW that got left too long in the microwave with a LandCruiser.

Some of the videos of Pogo in action are well worth watching, and I'm in favour of AT&T and other large companies with too much money/time doing research of all kinds, even if its only into doomed interface design.

But while you watch, don't let the siren song of 3D interface whizzyness lure you away. Don't start picturing yourself in a 'Minority Report' future with productivity levels 10x today's. Expect the personal jetpack to ship first!

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