It strikes me that when I read about UI as something people are thinking about on the meta level, the writing tends to take a rather narrow perspective by trying to judge which particular UI is 'better', 'easier to use', 'more efficient', or 'more intutive'. Those are all important questions to ask, but I was struck this week by a different dimension of UI and UI design. Putting aside what UI is 'better' there's still the question of what the UI encourages you to do and what it encourages you not to do.
This musing came about when I was sitting on the sofa earlier this week and thought, 'damn OS X rocks!'. This spontaneous head-thought came about because at that moment I was doing the following:
- ripping a DVD in Handbrake, which requires intense video encoding
- copying a huge file over the WLAN to the Mac mini
- copying another file over an SSH tunnel to my office computer
- exporting a Video clip from MPEG Streamclip
- working on a huge Keynote presentation (filled with video clips)
- checking my email in the background
- actively typing something in Pages
So by 'OS X rocks' I meant to express how impressed I was that both the OS and the processor could handle all this, and not make me think for a moment that I'd have to wait for the machine.
But, of course, this is complete OS X chauvinism: any modern multithreaded operating system (OS X, XP, Vista) running on the Intel Core Duo processor could do all of this. It was not necessarily something special about OS X.
However, I then got to thinking about how my XP friends and colleagues actually use their machine, and it seems to me that they are very unlikely to really take advantage of their Core Duo chip or their multithreaded OS. Indeed, just the day before I watched as my utterly computer literature colleague interacted with his XP machine. Seriously, this guy understands computers far better than most. But like everyone I watch use XP he interacts with every app in full-screen mode. And he never really switches between apps; instead, he constantly clicks the little icon that sends the window down to the bottom of the screen, but the idea of leaving an app with 5 windows open just sitting there while sliding over to a different app is just a thought he's never had. In this particular session we were looking at a few different word files that I had emailed him, and then working out a structure in a different word Doc. We'd be working on the main doc and every time he needed one of those other word docus he would do the following:
- Switch to MS outlook
- Find the email I sent him
- Click on the Zip attachment
- Answer yes to unzipping each of the 6 files
- Select the file he wanted and have it open in word
My very much speculative point is this: isn't it the case that the set-up of XP encourages this type of time-wasting behavior and discourages more sophisticated multitasking? Every window wants to be full screen. App switching (as in, through the dock or command-tab in OS X) doesn't seem readily available that I can see. Users are encouraged to think about their computer the same way they thought about it in DOS. That's sad.