Tricycles vs. Training Wheels

February 2, 2006 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

In Infoworld, Jon Udell writes When it comes to increasing human productivity, user interfaces aren't one size fits all and cites Doug Engelbart:

"Easy-to-use computer systems, as we conventionally understand them, are not what Engelbart had in mind. You might be surprised to learn that he regards today’s one-size-fits-all GUI as a tragic outcome. That paradigm, he said in a talk at Accelerating Change 2004, has crippled our effort to augment human capability.

High-performance tasks require high-performance user interfaces specially designed for those tasks. Instead of making every task lie on the Procrustean bed of the standard GUI, we should be inventing new, task-appropriate interfaces. No, they won’t work for everyone. Yes, they’ll require effort to learn. But in every domain there are some experts who will invest that effort in order to achieve greater mastery. We need to do more to empower those people. ..."

I agree, and second Jon's suggestion that we all should look carefully at Doug's goals and analysis. Doug's consistent position since the 1960's has been: valuable skills that make people productive have a learning curve, but may provide the only means to effectively augment ones capabilities. Doug often uses the analogy: Riding a bicycle - unlike a tricycle - is a skill that requires a modest degree of practice (and a few spills), but the rider of a bicycle quickly outpaces the rider of a tricycle.

Alan Kay (the godfather of Smalltalk and the PARC interface) picked up on this theme during a talk and panel discussion at the MIT Bush Symposium: 50 Years After As We May Think, quotes below (watch the video it's great). Doug's hard core position on this point has likely been one of the factors which limited acceptance and adoption of Augment/NLS [Doug's 1968 hypertext system for which he invented the mouse and chord keyboard].

From today's perspective, Augment/NLS suffered from a learning wall rather than a learning curve. Thirty years ago, Augment/NLS users had to understand, learn, practice, and use an entirely new and unfamiliar set of paradigms for communication (and typing - if you wanted to use Doug's chord set along with the mouse). The rewards were great, but the steepness of the path required heroic dedication.

The great challenge is: finding an effective strategy to get people moving in a direction that delivers on the promise of Engelbart's Augment/NLS systems for highly skilled and dedicated teams - who reap the greatest benefit from a deep product - while making the entry point simple and clear to a naive or disinterested user.

Over thirty years later, we have the luxury of building on top of the experience and social as well as technological infrastructure of the web. We need to make the entry barriers are as invisible as we can, and make each step up the experience ramp deliver greater and greater return.

This makes interface design much more challenging, but worth the effort.

In the same panel, Alan Kay said: "I characterize what we have today as a wonderful bike with training wheels on that nobody knows they are on so nobody is trying to take them off".

I think it's better to build software with training wheels that are easy to recognize and remove, than to continue to build tricycles that no-one can grow out of. As Alan says, its a terrible mistake to assume that kids and and grownups will not spend the time to acquire new skills, so long as the payoff is great enough and mastery of the skill is itself a source of enjoyment. Mastery of Emacs can be just as enjoyable and rewarding as mastery of a video game.

Alan Kay: ... If you have ever seen anybody use NLS [Engelbart's 1968 hypertext system for which he invented the mouse and chord key set] it is really marvelous cause you're kindof flying along through the stuff several commands a second and there's a complete different sense of what it means to interact than you have today. I characterize what we have today as a wonderful bike with training wheels on that nobody knows they are on so nobody is trying to take them off. I just feel like we're way way behind where we could have been if it weren't for the way commercialization turned out.

Doug Engelbart: Well, strangely enough, I feel the same. It's part of the thing of the easy to learn and natural to use thing that became sortof a god to follow and the marketplace is driving it and its successful and you could market on that basis, but some of the diagrams pictures that I didn't quite get to the other day was how do you ever migrate from a tricycle to a bicycle because a bicycle is very unnatural and very hard to learn compared to a tricycle, and yet in society it has superseded all the tricycles for people over five years old. So the whole idea of high-performance knowledge work is yet to come up and be in the domain. Its still the orientation of automating what you used to do instead of moving to a whole new domain in which you are going to obviously going to learn quite a few new skills. And so you make analogies of suppose you wanted to move up to the ski slopes and be mobile on skis. Well, just visiting them for an afternoon is not going to do it. So, I'd love to have photographs of skateboards and skis and windsurfing and all of that to show you what people can really if they have a new way supplied by technology to be mobile in a different environment. None of that could be done if people insisted that it was an easy-to-learn thing. ...

Alan Kay: Looking back I think that one of the paradoxes is that we made a complete mistake when we were doing the interface at PARC because we assumed that the kids would need an easy interface because we were going to try and teach them to program and stuff like that, but in fact they are the ones who are willing to put hours into getting really expert at things - shooting baskets, learning to hit baseballs, learning to ride bikes, and now on video games. I have a four-year old nephew who is really incredible and he could use NLS [Engelbart's 1968 hypertext system] fantastically if it were available He would be flying through that stuff because his whole thing is to become part of the system he's interacting with and so if I had had that perspective I would have designed a completely different interface for the kids, one in which how you became expert was much more apparent than what I did. So I'm sorry for what I did.

quotes from: Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium - 50th Anniversary of As We May Think, Notes from the Panels, see the video.

Update Remembering Doug Engelbart, 30 January 1925 - 2 July 2013

See also Doug Engelbart | 85th Birthday Jan 30, 2010
And here's what Enterprise 2.0 looked like in 1968 | Dealing lightning with both hands...