Interfacing at the Speed of Thought

There are a lot of interfaces that irk me, not because they’re poorly designed in general, but because they don’t interface well with my brain. In particular, they don’t interface well with the speed of brains. The best interfaces become extensions of your body. You gain the same direct control over them that you have over your fingertips, your eyes, your tongue in forming words.

This essay comes in two parts: (1) why this is an issue and (2) advice on how to make the best of what we’ve got.

Feedback and control systems in the body

One thing that characterizes your control over your body is that it (usually) has very, very good feedback. Probably a bunch of kinds you don’t even realize exists. Consider that your muscles don’t actually know anything about location, but simply exerting a pulling force. If all of the information you had were your senses of sight and touch-against-skin, and the ability to control those pulling forces, it would be really hard to control your body. But fortunately, you also have proprioception, the sense that lets you know where your body is, even if your eyes are shut and nothing is touching. For example, close your eyes and try to bring your finger to about 2cm (an inch) from your nose. It’s trivially easy.

One more example that I love and then I’ll move on. Compensatory eye movements. Focus your gaze at something at least two feet away, then bobble your head around. Tried it? Your brain has sophisticated systems (approximating calculus that most engineering students would struggle with) that move your eyes exactly opposite to your head, so that whatever you’re looking at remains in the center of your gaze and really quite incredibly stable even while you flail your head. This blew my mind when I first realized it.

The result of all of these control systems is that our bodies kind of just do what we tell them to. As I type this, I don’t have to be constantly monitoring whether my arms are exerting enough force to stay levitated above my keyboard. I just will them to be there. It’s beyond easy―it’s effortless.

Now, try willing your phone to call your friend. You’re allowed to communicate your will using your voice, your hands, whatever. Why does it take so many steps, or so much waiting?

» read the rest of this entry »

On the Unsuitableness of “IF” and the Intricacies of “BUT”

A short reflection on two even shorter words.

Don’t use “if” if…

The other day, I was reading the details of various phone services while logged into my carrier’s website. I came across a section that read:

Long distance charges apply if you don’t have an unlimited nationwide feature.

…so I’m like “Wait? Do I have an unlimited nationwide feature?” and it occurs to me that there was no reason for them to use the word “if” there. I’m logged in! Their system knows the answer to the if question and should simply provide the result instead of forcing me to figure out if I qualify.

Since you asked…

In some cases, of course, it might be valuable to let the user know that the result hinges on the state of things, but there’s an alternative to “if”. It’s called “since”. So that page, instead of what it said, should have been something more like:

Long distance charges would apply, but they don’t since you have an unlimited nationwide feature.

or

Long distance charges apply since you don’t have an unlimited nationwide feature. Upgrade now

I was initially going to just talk about software, but this actually applies to any kind of service, including one made of flesh and smiles. The keystone of service is anticipation. A good system will anticipate what the user needs/wants and will provide it as available. This means not saying “if” when the if statement in question can be evaluated by the server (machine or human) instead.

How to arrange your “but”

Framing is important. There are many other examples of this (in fact, I’m in the process of compiling a list of helpful ways to reframe things) but here’s a simple one. It relates to the word “but”. Specifically, to the order of the two clauses attached to the “but”. The example that prompted me to jot this idea down was deciding which of the following to write in my journal:

  • Wrecking my productivity, but it’s an awesome book.
  • Awesome book, but it’s wrecking my productivity.

As is readily apparent, the second part becomes the dominant or conclusive statement as it gets the final word against the first statement. In this case, I opted in the end to use the former option, because it affirms the value of reading the book rather than suggesting it’s not worth it in the long run. The book in question is a now-finished serial ebook called The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin, and the sentences above should give you an adequate warning/recommendation not to read it.

This bit about the buts is obvious in hindsight, but I found that laying it out explicitly like this helped me start noticing it a lot more and therefore reframing both my thoughts and my communication.

And yet…

Say you want to express to a cook both your enjoyment of a meal and your surprise at its spiciness, there are several options:

  • I really enjoyed this, but it was spicier than I expected.”
  • This was spicier than I expected, but I really enjoyed it.”

…but, maybe the extra spiciness didn’t detract from the enjoyment. In that case, a better conjunction would be “and”. Again, like before, this sounds obvious, but once consciously aware of it I started catching myself saying “but” in places that didn’t adequately capture what I wanted to say or in some cases were rude. The chef remark above has the potential to be rude, for example.


If you want to add to the reframing list, comment below or shoot me an email at malcolm@[thisdomain].

The Emotional Intelligence of a Smartphone

An image depicting the difficulties I had drawing on my touchscreen. It shows how two horizontal bands were not receiving any kind of input.

This mockup of what drawing was like on my touchscreen shows clearly which parts of the screen don't work.

My phone

I’ve been the owner of an Android phone (HTC Incredible S) for 9 months now, but today I sent it off to get serviced because the touchscreen has been acting up. I first noticed the touchscreen behaving strangely this fall, when horizontal bands of the screen would sometimes be unresponsive. On the right, in a mockup of a drawing app, you can see how poking the screen produced no dots on the band, and so on. This was even more annoying when trying to type, because the bottom band passed right through the home-row (if you can still call it that on a touchscreen) of the keyboard.

Anyway, at first it would just do this for a few minutes every day, but then it started to act up like this consistently. The problems got progressively worse until by mid-January I could never be certain at any given moment that I’d be able to use my phone at all. Furthermore, touch events started happening in the wrong places—I would try to select “Yes” and the screen would select “No”, or taps would become long presses. Sometimes the phone would seem to think I had touched somewhere on the screen when it was sitting a foot away on my desk, and would navigate interfaces on its own.

An iceberg is depicted, with much more mass below the water than above. The top is labelled as IQ and the bottom as EQ.

  I think this is a terrible analogy, because I think EQ is easier to assess on the surface than IQ is. Anyway, I didn't make the image.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (hereafter EI, though often called EQ like IQ) is a term that is used to describe one’s ability to perceive others’ emotions and response appropriately in social situations. As the image here from Psychology Today illustrates, EQ is ascribed a fair amount of importance. The same concept is also embodied in maxims like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”.

What makes a smartphone smart?

So if we were to map the concept of IQ to technology, it could refer to a number of things, but at the forefront is processing power and efficiency/effectiveness of algorithms. Of additional consideration is the ability to learn new things, which is likely where the concept of a smartphone comes from: in addition to built-in phone features like SMS and alarms, smartphones can play games, interact with social networks, and let us draw, to mention just some of the hundreds of thousands of apps out there.

How, then, would we map EI, or EQ? Emotional intelligence, for a computer or smartphone, or any piece of software, is its interface. A piece of software has good EI if it responds the way you expect it to, and even better EI if it anticipates your needs and makes it easy to accomplish your goals. When our technology does this, we adore it, and when it fails to do so, we abhor it.

Can a phone be rude? What about mean?

However, this feeling of dislike can actually go further than just general annoyance or frustration at an inability to properly perform a task using some interface. I realized this rather profoundly with my defective smartphone when I had been trying in vain for probably five minutes to do something really simple like call someone. I was completely unable to navigate the interface because the screen would constantly press other places or simply refuse to push where I wanted. How do you think I felt? I’m actually going to give you space to guess. Think of an adjective that you would expect to most accurately describe my feelings at that point.

Did you say frustrated? Angry? Disgusted? Resentful? Those are all true, but that’s not exactly right. When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt. It sounds odd, but I had an emotional response in my chest that I’ve recognized as the one I feel when someone is being cruel to me (I was bullied a bit when I was younger). It was probably the second time I had this response that I realized how strange that was. After all, at no point in this process had anyone set out to hurt me. Why did I feel like my phone was being mean to me?

After some reflection, I concluded that how I really felt was misunderstood. I was trying to communicate with my phone, via its touchscreen interface (which was designed for human fingers) and it seemed to be completely misunderstanding my instructions and ignoring them or vehemently disobeying them. I had unwittingly personified my phone to a huge extent, so it really hurt when I felt like it was ignoring me while I was going out of my way to communicate with it (eg. turning the phone to put UI elements in different places so I could access them). This would be like asking someone close to you (smartphones are companions) for help and having them plug their ears, sing, and then do something random that might be slightly related to what you were asking. They’d be taunting you.

Moving forward as a designer

When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt.

I’m a designer, a hacker, and an engineering student, so I make things with interfaces. In fact, I’m quite passionate about user experience (UX) and interface design. While my phone’s flaky touchscreen was obviously not intentional, I believe that what I’ve learned here apply into conscious interface design as well. This kind of revelation is less of a “how” than a “why”. That is, prior to these experiences, I had had no idea that interfaces could cause such an emotional impact.

When my smartphone became stupid, it didn’t lose processing power. It simply lost the ability to communicate with me, and that felt far worse than I could have possibly expected. I’m going to remember this every time I design an interface.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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