Good design doesn’t need underlining

I was having a conversation at the UIST conference this week with Bill Buxton, one of my heroes in the field of HCI (Human/Computer interfaces). We realized that we both disapproved of the idea of computer interfaces that tell you where you are supposed to focus your attention.

Essentially, if an interface needs to tell you where to look, then it is doing something wrong. If the interface is properly designed, you should already be looking in the right place.

Consider earlier media, such as cinema. A great film director, such as Bigelow or Scorcese, knows how to steer your eye around the screen, without you even realizing they are doing it. They don’t need to tell you to look at a certain place — you are already looking there.

To invoke an even earlier media technology, think of novels that you have read and loved. You can clearly remember the most vivid passages, the ones that had a deep impact on you.

Theoretically a novelist could tell the publisher that certain passages need to be underlined in red. “These are the places,” the hopeful author might explain, “where the reader really needs to pay attention. Let’s highlight those passages just to make that clear.

If I were a publisher, I would seriously question this strategy. And so should you, if you are an HCI designer.

2 Responses to “Good design doesn’t need underlining”

  1. Manu says:

    Well, there is now social underlining of texts. In Kindle, you can see the most popular highlights highlighted in your own copy of the book. Instead of the author telling you where to focus, the previous readers are.

  2. admin says:

    Ah, interesting. That feels a bit more like an on-line book club.

    I think a crucial distinction is that participation in such highlighting (either as writer or reader) is entirely voluntary, as opposed to being presented as an intrinsic part of the text itself.

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