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Avoid the mouse trap: Old habits wreck new tech

Mike Elgan | July 10, 2017
Powerful new UIs are becoming desirable and necessary. But how do you get people to use them?

new tech

Don't look now, but your desktop user interface dates back to the Nixon administration. Is it time to upgrade to the next UI?

New technologies revolutionize business. And big shifts like artificial intelligent (AI) virtual assistants and augmented reality seem to have gone from "someday" technologies, to "happening right now."

These technologies are expected to transform business for the better. And I believe they will -- far more than we realize. These new systems come with powerful new user interfaces. There's just one problem: People don't like new interfaces — and cling to the old, inefficient ones.

It's not a theoretical problem. Global business has lost productivity on a galactic scale because of our failure to or inability to switch to the best interface.


This type of thing happens

Experts complain that the common QWERTY keyboard layout is inefficient, slow and problematic. (Other languages have their own arrangements that are just as inefficient, including AZERTY for French, QWERTZ for German and QZERTY for Italian.)

macbook 2017 keyboard2

The 2017 MacBook and its butterfly-switch QWERTY keyboard.

The QWERTY system was invented in the 1860s for manual typewriters to solve manual typewriter problems. Even after computers came around a century later, we never convinced users to break the old keyboard habit.

Dvorak is easier and Colemak is faster. These and other QWERTY alternatives that can reduce fatigue and errors and generally boost productivity. In fact, many alternatives superior to QWERTY have already emerged. But they never caught on because of old habits.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is the WIMP user interface (WIMP stands for windows, icons, menus, pointer), which was developed by Xerox PARC, popularized by the Apple Macintosh and mainstreamed by Microsoft Windows.

The first WIMP computer, called the Xerox Alto, shipped in 1973. Now, 45 years later, we're still stuck with it.

The reasons for WIMP's longevity are complicated. It's partly because the most powerful machines, and how we use them, are well suited to WIMP's desktop metaphor and peripherals. And, as with the traditional keyboard, it's partly because old habits die hard.

At present, we have two general mainstream user interfaces: WIMP and its variants (the most common being WIMP using a touchpad instead of a mouse) and MPG, which stands for multi-touch, physics and gestures.

In general, we think of WIMP as an approach to desktop or laptop or "real" computing and MPG as an approach to mobile.

(There are exceptions to these general rules, including Microsoft's Surface Studio device, which is a desktop MPG PC, and the Apple iPad Pro, which is optimized for a keyboard, Apple Pencil and which will support the WIMP's "folders" metaphor with the introduction of iOS 11 later this year.)


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