Dynamic interfaces and innovation in how we view information

While reading Interface Culture, Steven Johnson mentioned an early (1996) concept of Apple’s known as V-Twin.

“In early 1996, Apple began showing a functional demo of its new Finder software, in which all file directories include a category for “most representative words”. As you change the content of the document, the list of high-information words adjusts to reflect the new language. At first glance, this may seem like a superficial advance—a nifty feature but certainly nothing to write home about. And yet it contains the seeds of a significant interface innovation”

“Apple’s list of high information words raises the stakes dramatically: for the first time, the computer surveys the content, the meaning of the documents”

“Apple’s new Finder was the first to peer beyond the outer surface, to the kernel of meaning that lies within. And it was only the beginning.”

“It is here that the real revolution of text-driven interfaces should become apparent. Apple’s V-Twin implementation lets you define the results of a search as a permanent element of the Mac desktop—as durable and accessible as your disk icons and the subfolders beneath them.”

In Apple’s OS X Tiger in 2004, the original idea behind V-Twin and Views was shipped as Apple’s new ‘Smart Folders’. I find it interesting to note that it took nearly a decade for this innovation to reach and be received by the masses.

With View’s came a few breaks in consistency, as the function of these folders differed from regular folders, and therefore so did their various interactive behaviours. certain actions may not happen the way the user is accustomed to, based on their existing knowledge of Apple’s set-in-stone Interface conventions. “Wasn’t the user experience supposed to be all about consistency?” “The fact that the View window departs so dramatically from the Mac conventions indicates how radical the shift really is, even if it seems innocuous at first glance.”

I think this is particularly relevant when it comes to my questioning of ‘Innovation vs. Convention’, which I plan to discuss in detail towards the end of my Research Report. Here, in Apple’s example, breaking convention was a necessary result of innovation. Certain conventions could not physically exist within this innovation, as they directly contradicted the function of the innovation itself.

Further Views reading can be found on on Johnson’s Website.

“The contents of the view window, in other words, are dynamic; they adapt themselves automatically to any changes you make to the pool of data on your hard drive.” “If there is a genuine paradigm shift lurking somewhere in this mix—and I believe there is—it has to do with the idea of windows governed by semantics and not by space. Ever since Doug Engelbart’s revolutionary demo back in 1968, graphic interfaces have relied on spatial logic as a fundamental organisational principle.”

I find a link in modern interface design here. For example, I have a multitude of documents in my Google Drive. When I open up the Google Docs Web App, I am faced with, firstly, the option to create a new document, secondly, followed by a list of all of my documents. However, Google doesn’t automatically order these by Name or Type—as some apps may default to—but by Date.

A screenshot from my Google Docs home-page, showing the hierarchy of where I will go when searching for the document I want.

The above screenshot illustrates this. When I arrive here, once I have decided that creating a new document is not my goal, I focus my attention on the next ‘chunk’ of information (highlighted by the red). Google has decided that it’s very likely I’ll want to resume working on something I have opened recently. Even if I haven’t opened the document I want in the very recent past, chances are it’s one of those I opened in the past month (orange). Failing that, the search bar is only a few pixels away at the top of the screen, so I can search precisely for what I want.

The majority of the time, though, Google’s first instinct is in fact exactly true, and the exact document I came in search for has pride of place in the hierarchy of the information. This is an example of the application organising information (or files) by a meaning that it has perceived through interpreting more static, regimented data (when a user has opened a file). The application associates ‘recently used’ with ‘higher priority’. As I said, the majority of the time, this is very accurate – it is probably my research report files (for this exact report) that I want to access, as that is almost solely what I am working on currently. However, sometimes that may not be the case. Perhaps I am working on my report, but I want to dig out an older document that I find relevant to what I’m working on now, in order to reference it. This organisation of information does not interfere with that, as I explained with the Orange and Yellow – everything else is still close at hand.

Apple also does this in their modern interfaces. Let’s take a look at my (suitably and conveniently disorganised) desktop at this present moment.

A few moments before taking the screenshot above, I’d taken another screenshot. At the time I took that screenshot, it’s likely I was planning to use it for something very soon after — whether that was to share it, move it to a different location, or open it in an image editing app to annotate it. I know that the screenshots save to my desktop, so my first step would be to open my desktop (in this case, I’ve opened it as a folder, rather than going to the actual desktop itself. It is also worth mentioning I could have opened the ‘folder’ ‘All my files’ and the result would be the same). As you can see, Apple have kindly organised my desktop files by Date Last Opened. This places my recently taken screenshot, again, in a prominent position set aside from the rest – it’s right at the top, under a section specifically for files I have created today. It is the first file I see; this makes the workflow of Save Screenshot → Find Screenshot → Share Screenshot (something I do often) about as streamlined as it has ever been.

The same principle would apply in a range of different scenarios, for example if I had saved an image from the web or maybe from another application. It is also worth mentioning that I can further organise the screen above. Apple gives you the option to organise the files here firstly by Date Last Opened (sectioning them into Today, 7 Days, 30 Days, as above) but within those sections you can further organise them by Name, Kind, etc. So, you might know that the file you are looking for was opened in the last week, and you also know it begins with a particular letter, so you can use those details combined with Apple’s intuitive sorting to then find it in a fraction of the time than if you were faced with your entire desktop listed A → Z.

This is just a small example of how modern interface designers are streamlining our workflows by interpreting and extracting meaning from data. This particular example isn’t even as complex as interpreting the content of documents, merely the time they were created or last opened. It also stands as an example of how very early interface design (going back to Apple’s 1996 Views) paved the path of innovation with their own breakthroughs along the way — not just in the form of new metaphors or visuals, but by questioning the way we think about and utilise data and information. The notion of a semantic—rather than solely spatial—file system is one of these.

“What the view window does, in effect, is say this: why not organise the desktop according to another illusion? Instead of space, why not organise around meaning?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *