Interface is destiny

| Thursday, July 25, 2013
How we interact with information will influence what we do with it. For these purposes, interface refers to both the display of information, the ability to interact with it, and how we input commands.

While my graduate work is done, the report I wrote (with an excellent group) on eliminating the taxation of retirement income was good enough that our school wanted to release another version of it. This would be much shorter, about a third the length, and would encourage us to take a more direct stance rather than merely laying out the facts, which did point toward an obvious conclusion, but we were meant to be analyzing, not advocating. The shorter version would also have to be more interesting and wouldn't need to waste space on basic concepts.

Most of the group was employed by then (darn go-getters), so the two unemployed of the group remained: me and someone else. Our first attempt took the form of roughly chopping up the report. We'd remove explanations that seemed unnecessary. We'd remove areas of the literature review that seemed dull or repetitive. Some of the redundancy, of looking at the same result from different angles, was removed.After some time we sent in a draft and received a scathing review. I was a bit peeved, since surely it wasn't so awful, given that the original was not.

Enter: interface. We'd been in the habit of using our separate computers. We did this because it's really annoying to have someone sitting over your shoulder, or to sit over someone's shoulder, squinting at the text, unsure if it makes no sense because it's bad or because you cannot see it clearly. Yet this created another problem, that we couldn't fully see what the other was doing. Of course we could read it, after the fact, but that spawned two problems. First, we're lazy. Second, this meant that feedback carried a delay and was consequently forgotten, confused, or by then irrelevant because they'd changed it already. Having one's own computer handy, and an excuse to use it, also made it far too easy to be distracted. Is it a surprise then that our draft was terrible?

So we did what we should have done in the first place: got a big screen. The library features study rooms with nice big TV screens hooked up to computers, so we can work together. While this is an exceptionally unproductive and annoying process with five people, with two it works quite well. We keep each other on task, laptops off to the size, always on the same page, able to highlight what we're talking about and edit it together. The flow of information in all directions is improved. As a result, I believe the second attempt is far better, with improved narrative flow, consistent phrasing, and much bigger, more readable text (I fear that last one is unique to the display we were using).

Which of course brings me to Civilization V. While Gods & Kings fixed up the diplomacy, tweaked the combat, added another layer to the game, and generally made just about everything better (I swear the load time is slightly faster even), it still uses an interface for building that is inferior to that of Civ IV. In Civ IV I'd happily queue up the next buildings or units, even setting repeating unit production, which is great for an army. In Civ V I avoid it. It's more of a hassle to use the queue than to click the production query every few turns. The result is that I put more places on pure gold or science than I would otherwise, with fewer units produced and less culture, not because that is the better decision, but because it is the less annoying decision.

If an interface is annoying enough, then people won't use it.

I have a complaint for you too, Guild Wars 2. It's about my engineer. I like using everything that is useful, so I switch weapons a lot: pistols, flamethrower, green squirty gun. It's nifty all the things I can do. What isn't nifty is that they're essentially all nested in menus. Of course menus make for a nice interface, hiding away all that stuff that you're not clicking at this very moment, but they make it harder to get to the ability I'm trying to use. I don't understand the point of one-click shopping, but one-click shooting is perfectly logical.

 All of this is also why I dislike mobile things. On a computer I can use hotkeys, scroll wheels, and all manner of methods of interaction. Touch doesn't allow that. Sure, I can do a lot of hand gestures, and mobile interfaces inspire some, but there are only so many different ways to swipe. This is also why I think consoles are silly. Or maybe I just lack a TV to justify one. While we're at it, there is my repeating whine about Skyrim, that the interface is designed for very few input options, thereby forcing everything into the inconvenient abyss of menus. I wonder why I don't play a caster once I get beyond firethrowing.

Another strike against mobile things: they're small. Again, everything has to be shoved off-screen into little menus or other screens. Information ends up scattered and harder to take in. Then again, I once used three screens for a single program once. Who wouldn't want one screen for the data definitions, another for the stata input, and another to see what wrong answer it is giving this time (by which I mean that I typed something in wrong). Ideally I'd have had a fourth screen to look up syntax. I really hate switching screens. Because of all my screens, stata was one of the few times I was actually more productive working at home.

In conclusion, I once tried to play Starcraft 2 on my laptop without a mouse and it was a terrible experience.


Coreus said...

Do you really not own a console? I play games on a PC first and foremost, but over the years I've ended up with all the popular consoles, for things like Guitar Hero, Journey and Nintendo's various franchises.

I think WoW gets away with its interface being less than optimal because there are so many third-party options to replace it. I spend a lot of time designing and redesigning my WoW interface to make it as... well I guess "seamless" is the proper word to use. The goal is to remove as much as possible between my making a decision and my avatar performing it.

Interface isn't the most important part of a game exactly, but it's the most important thing to not fuck up. A perfect example: I'm sure many Wii games are great, but I'll never know because they expect me to jiggle my right hand spastically to perform an action that should have just been a fucking button.

In my opinion there has been no better symbol of what motion controls represent at this point in time than seeing someone frantically perform a mid-air wanking motion with a penis-shaped controller in their hand.

Klepsacovic said...

There were never any consoles at my parents' house and none of my friends were much into games that weren't sports (not fun) or smash bros (I never played enough to be anything more than awful, which was also not so much fun). Ever since I got a decent PC I've not minded not having a console.

The gestures system reminds me of Black and White. The gesture system in that felt so cool, until I couldn't consistently draw anything quickly, and then it was just frustrating and obnoxious.

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