Bob like interfaces?

Levi Pearson levipearson at gmail.com
Thu Feb 6 14:00:28 MST 2014


On Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 10:10 AM, S. Dale Morrey <sdalemorrey at gmail.com> wrote:
> Someone brought up MS Bob http://toastytech.com/guis/bob.html in a
> discussion today.
> It got me thinking, why hasn't this been implemented as a desktop for
> Linux?  It would be totally perfect for kids and the elderly.  There may be
> an example of this somewhere, but I've never seen it.  Does anyone know of
> a Bob like interface on top of *nix?
>
> Also am I the only one who thinks this would be the perfect interface for a
> touchscreen or tablet?

As others have brought up, it's not really necessary for kids.  And I
think it would seem condescending rather than helpful to the elderly.

The original Mac OS and the original iOS were, IMO, high-points in
usability for people who are not accustomed to the extreme complexity
of modern computer systems.  I think the original iOS probably wins
between the two due to the initial difficulty that many people had in
figuring out mouse usage.  The Mac came with some nice tutorial
documents and a simple program to illustrate the mousing concept, but
for someone who's already a bit intimidated by computers, those only
go so far.

>From my perspective, the key to interface usability is for there to be
an uncluttered presentation of the interface tools and clear
relationships between the tools and the operations they perform. For
iOS, the gestural interface and the visual feedback you get when you
work with it is an excellent example of this. There's a single button
on the front that always takes you to the home screen.  Options for
what to do are all presented on the home screen there.  Each option
typically presented a full-screen touch GUI, with buttons that looked
and behaved approximately like buttons and wheels/sliders that looked
and behaved approximately like they appeared like they should.  There
weren't a ton of extraneous options and there weren't a whole bunch of
different possible screens per app.

This is actually a lot like the interface of the original Mac, but
with the added benefit of direct touch manipulation and the lack of
the incidental complexity of menu systems.  The Mac was revolutionary
compared to command line interfaces of previous PCs.  Just the attempt
to give a standard categorization of commands and to put them in a
standard organizational scheme and discoverable location like the Mac
menu bar was a *huge* usability improvement over the days of
application-specific keyboard overlays and heavily dog-eared reference
manuals.  But the way that menus work in relation to the physical
motions of mousing is not *obvious* to a complete novice, and it takes
some time and guidance for an intimidated user to get comfortable with
the concepts, and some never really do.

Both Mac OS and iOS developed a lot of additional complexity over
time, and it's now arguable whether they're significantly more usable
than alternatives.  But when both were first introduced, they were *by
far* more usable by novices than alternatives.

If you look at those screenshots of Bob by comparison, I think it's
clear that they did not follow the principles of usability I outlined.
 Instead, the interface takes skeuomorphism to a ridiculous extreme.
Things *look* like things you might interact with in the real world,
but you can't physically interact with them in the same ways that you
do with the real ones, and there's not even a dominant metaphor to
pick out and learn.  Ideally, any visual complexity would guide you to
the possible interaction methods, but in the case of Bob it simply
distracts.

What Bob mostly reminds me of is a visual puzzle-based adventure game,
but without much actual game content.  While this could be enticing to
kids, kids are pretty adventurous to begin with and don't need a whole
lot of enticement to explore.  On the other hand, I think the last
thing you want to present to an intimidated adult is a visual puzzle
that is unrelated to the task they want to accomplish.

I think the idea of "intelligent" agents that can watch what you're
doing and suggest ways around common problems or give guidance for
common use cases is actually a potentially good one, but Bob was
probably too early to do a very good job with it.  I would certainly
prefer an unobtrusive hint about how to accomplish things I'm doing
efficiently rather than what they actually implemented in Word that
guesses at what I'm trying to do and just magically does it for me
without asking.

But an experienced computer user must be careful about universally
applying their preferences and intuitions to designs meant to be
usable by novices; often the intuition and preferences of novices will
be completely different, since they lack the significant amounts of
experience with complex computer systems that the experienced users
have.

       --Levi


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