Monday, May 24, 2010

Let’s Retire the Forms-Based Interface

[Originally published July 11, 2007.]

I bet not too many people reading this have ever used a terminal hooked up to a minicomputer, and even fewer have used a forms-based interface on a terminal of that kind. But this kind of human-computer interaction is still a commonplace event in the business world: legacy IBM mini systems are everywhere. (If Y2K couldn’t kill them, nothing can.) People call this model “green-screen technology,” and they mean it pejoratively—it’s something archaic, clunky, and generally inferior to “modern” user interfaces.

That charge is mostly accurate. Though green-screen technology has its place (and to say what that place is, would be getting off-track, but it does have one) there’s no denying that it’s old-fashioned. But let me point out that so much of the Web consists of exactly that sort of thing. Web pages with fill-out boxes, check boxes, and radio buttons are even called “forms,” in obvious acknowledgement; so are Visual Basic application windows. The metaphor works, sort of: you fill in a form and then click “submit” (or press “Enter” on your IBM terminal’s keyboard—ever wonder why Windows PC keyboards say “Enter” instead of “Return”? now you know) which is like sending in a (paper) form to an office somewhere. Then you get an answer back—the results of a computation, a database query, etc.1

None of this is shocking. What is shocking is how much modern software exists whose interface is still essentially forms-based, yet which pretends to be interactive. They’re two very, very different interface paradigms. Interactivity in software comes from more than just adding buttons & windows to a forms-based interface. I.e., if your idea of successful HCI consists of a modal window in which the user fills in a bunch of fields and presses a button, whereupon a new modal window pops up containing a report, then you’re not only putting lipstick on a pig but also being just plain dishonest: you’re selling ’70s tech as if it were something new. Way too many commercial products that are essentially prettified database frontends (which isn’t a bad thing in itself) are designed with this mentality—that all you, the user, ever do with a computer is run an offline query (and maybe a batch of them if you’re a power user). ("But I'm not a fish!")

Now think about actual interactivity, the thing that microcomputers give us (or at least were supposed to, back around 1980). This is the state where not just all the data you’re working with but also the operations on that data and their results are fully accessible at all times, within reason. It’s the guiding mentality behind WYSIWIG in word processors, for example, as opposed to typesetting software like nroff or TeX (in which you write your document as a text file with interpolated commands, then submit that file to a program which outputs a proof). Another great example is Excel, which is nothing like programming numerical computations in a traditional programming language (for Excel is a programming tool—it has more in common with friendly interpreted language environments like the old 8-bit BASICs than with much application software). You see all your numbers in front of you, and by clicking in a cell or pressing a magic keystroke you can see all the operations on them (i.e. formulas), or the results of those operations. And you have total freedom to change or transform the data or the operations in realtime. There’s no modality to speak of.

Again, because this is the critical idea: you can’t just base an interface on pulling stuff out, changing it, and then resubmitting (putting it back in), and call it interactive. True interactivity requires non-modality of not just operations but also data: that is, all the data should be accessible all the time. Jeff Atwood wrote a great blog post about taking incremental search beyond the dataspace into the commandspace (pace Emacs). I’d like to see a lot more development of and experimentation with interfaces that use this kind of dynamic filtering to perform search, Neuromancer-style n-dimensional visualization of the dataspace, or a combination of both. Imagine this: instead of filling out a form and hitting “search,” you type (or click on) your parameters and watch a nebula of data dynamically shade itself as you type, with color and transparency indicating the sets involved and their relevance rating2—sort of a 3-D mixture of Venn diagrams and PivotTables.3 Or... remember the holodeck-furniture-database-search scene from the Star Trek episode “Schisms”?4

  1. Actually I like to think of this not so much as a “sending a form into a government office” model of computing as a “Wizard of Oz” model. You make your request of the Great and Powerful Oz and hope he gives you back something you can use.[back]
  2. C’mon, let’s use those alpha channels and all that other pretty stuff that modern graphics hardware can do for something other than another variation on Doom! [back]
  3. But please don’t call it “drilling down!” That’s not what that means, but I’ll save that for another entry. [back]
  4. Why is this not required watching for budding interaction designers and database programmers? [back]

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