tbolt UI Design & Programming

Dealers of Lightning

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age is a good read on the significance PARC played in the history of computing. The book is twenty years old now, but it still offers great insight. One bit that stood out to me was this excerpt:

Their first step was to do something PARC had never tried before: They analyzed how non-engineers would actually use a computer.

This survey was conducted back at Ginn, to which Mott returned with an Alto display, keyboard, and mouse. He installed them as a sort of dummy setup (the machine was nonfunctional) and invited editors to seat themselves in from of the equipment, imagine they were editing on-line, and describe what they expected it to do.

“They were a little skeptical,” he recalled. “But —surprise, surprise— what you got was them wanting the machine to mimic what they would do on paper” They even described the processes in terms of the tools they had always used. That is why to this day every conventional word processor’s commands for deleting a block of text and placing it elsewhere in a file are called “cut” and “paste” —because Ginn’s editors, the first non-engineers ever to use such a system, were thinking about the scissors and paste pots they used to rearrange manuscripts on paper.

Skeuomorphism is often misunderstood in design. The recent period of “flatness” in the past 5-10 years was a shallow episode that only harped on being visually defiant to Web 2.0 era designs. If we take the “design is how it works” stance, then skeuomorphism never really went away. We never dropped “cut” or “paste.”