[Beowulf] While the knives are out... Wulf Keepers

Mark Hahn hahn at physics.mcmaster.ca
Mon Aug 21 21:28:30 PDT 2006

> Speaker asks all the people in the audience: "Those of you with manual 
> transmissions in your car, raise your hand."
> 3/4 of the audience raises their hand.
> Speaker: "YOU, with your hands waving in the air, are NOT the people who 
> should be designing the user interfaces.

I find this asinine.  yes, there's a nugget of truth there,
but it's not true that such people are necessarily bad at designing UIs.
he's implying that if someone does anything "the hard way",
then they're incapable of comprehending the "easy" one.
that's just stupid.

> Build them, fine, but I want the 
> application to be like an automatic transmission.. puts the power to the 
> wheels in an optimum fashion and I don't have to think about it, manipulate 
> it, etc."

the reason it's a great anecdote is that it _almost_ addresses 
an interesting topic.  the topic is manual/automatic vs expertise. 
it's not true, for instance, that I have to think about driving manual - 
I've been doing it for a good number of years and and I'm quite certain I
shift better than automatic (at least the version found on mid-range cars).

expertise of this sort is not terribly deep - practice it and it'll be 
downloaded into your cerebellum.  the usual car clutch/stick arrangement is
not necessarily an optimal UI, but it's clearly something that is not hard to
automatize.  expertise (in this sense, often used in psych) is no more or
less than transforming a task that requires high-level executive supervision
to one which acts almost like a "brain reflex".  ("motor program" is actually
a phrase used in the field!)

computers are the same.  QWERTY is not a great layout, but I'll bet almost
all of you use it.  does that mean that you're disqualified from designing
UIs now?

it's good to minimize the friction encountered when performing some task;
it's NOT true that the only or best way to do that is by dumbing it down.
every bit of dumbing makes the system less versatile.  and the dumbing is 
not the goal - this is what is too often forgotten in UI design.

this is why the gradual improvements made to C and Fortran have helped 
those languages stay relevant.  yes, both lack the nicer syntactic sugar
for structuring provided by C++ or Java, but then again, sugar is just 
empty calories.  they don't change the expressive power, though they may
alter how easily a novice  can pick up the language and do something.
an expert will be able to do the same stuff in any language - often 
better in a "low level" one, just as an expert can make a manual car drive
better than an automatic.

fundamentally, we tell users that their main time-consuming loops need to be 
in efficient compiled languages, preferably in highly tuned libraries like
ACML.  what kind of duct tape they use on the outside is pretty much a matter
of taste.  (we have a population of users who have "gratuitously MPI" codes -
embarassingly parallel codes, often montecarlo, which are treated as MPI
simply to reduce book-keeping.  we're trying to figure out how to offer
better duct tape so they can submit these jobs honestly (as serial jobs).
to me, that's a lot more interesting than the particular language choice...)

regards, mark hahn.

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