Over the past week, virtually every media outlet has offered this list of revolutionary products, in solemn celebration of the achievements of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the legacy he has left behind. The name of any one of those devices brings to mind the image of a sleek, modern machine, just begging you to run your hands over it, and a pristine interface to match. That is exactly what Apple represents to many of us: clean lines, both physically and digitally. This celebration of simplicity, which finds support in the field of Human-computer interaction (HCI), is no accident: It has always been at the heart of Apple design, thanks to the inspired vision of Steve Jobs.
Until the late 1970s, computer use was reserved for IT specialists and a handful of private enthusiasts, writes John M. Carroll, Professor of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University and a founder of the field of Human-computer interaction (HCI). It was intentionally made difficult to understand, because it was a culture. “This is really the root of why we sometimes speak in derogatory terms of computer people as geeks,” he says. “This is the height of ‘geekery’: Everything is complex, it’s obscure, it’s arcane, it’s tricky. And that’s all fun if you’re part of the codery. But if you’re just a regular person, it’s a huge obstacle.” Steve Jobs was one of the first to recognize that it didn’t have to stay this way.
The theory of minimalism, developed by John Carroll for designing more effective training materials for computer users, provides principles that support a better human-computer experience. Among them is the idea that efficient interfaces present only the information that is necessary, and rely on the user’s human intelligence to extrapolate from there. The user often suffers from too much information, rather than too little. For this reason, a 2005 Apple document providing guidelines for developing Mac OS X applications encourages designers to use metaphors. “Metaphors are the building blocks in the user’s mental model of a task. Use metaphors that represent concrete, familiar ideas…so that users can apply a set of expectations to the computer environment.” Playlists in iTunes and albums in iPhoto illustrate metaphors taken from the real world.
Professor Carroll also emphasizes the efficiency gained by using commands that apply universally across applications (for instance, the copy and insert commands that we all know.) We take this for granted today, because the idea has spread all over the industry, but he believes this was not typical before Apple implemented it. Efficiency is important because, although sometimes we may interact with a device simply by browsing idly, most often, we are trying to do something. If we consider that every interaction between user and computer represents an obstacle to achieving a goal, then “a very simple device language is a way of minimizing that interaction.” Right at the beginning of the personal computing era, Steve Jobs helped simplify this relationship and render the computer accessible to a vastly larger audience, allowing the uninitiated to walk where, formerly, only the geek had dared to go.
In taking these first steps, Apple, it is often said, “appropriated early graphical user interface designs from Xerox PARC,” explains Professor Carroll, “but I think it’s also pretty clear that they improved those designs in reducing complexity and increasing transparency for the user.” Two goals in line with a better HCI experience. The pattern of taking an existing technology and improving on it wildly has appeared again and again throughout Apple’s history under Jobs’s leadership. They didn’t invent the personal music device or the smart phone, but the iPod, the iPhone and their kin set the bar so astronomically high, in terms of elegant, usable design, that competitors had no choice but to follow. Leave the innovation to Apple, and get out of the way.
Much of Jobs’s success may be due to his gift for marketing. An air-tight seal of secrecy surrounded every new development; when a new product was finally announced, the event was a tightly choreographed theatrical performance. This certainly helped created buzz and desire around Apple’s latest creation, but the effect would not have lasted if the products hadn’t stood up to the scrutiny of a demanding market. And that is where Steve Jobs’s genius really shows. He had one uncompromising demand for his technology: for its use to be so intuitive that it could be enjoyed by absolutely anyone. For John Carroll, Jobs was not a technical usability expert, in the sense of someone who investigates and carries out experiments on the user experience. He may not have known what elements would create a simpler, more satisfying experience. But he knew that they had to be found. “He was a visionary at the product level.”
Macworld San Francisco 2007 Keynote:
In the late 70s, when Apple was just getting off the ground, Steve Jobs was able to benefit from the zeitgeist of the times, Carroll believes. The factors were already in place for a personal computing revolution: the technological possibilities, the tasks that users wanted to complete, the infrastructures like the Internet, and so on. Jobs recognized this and ran with it. Similarly, throughout his career, he made good use of the enormous concentration of talent in Silicon Valley, surrounding himself with the best technical experts to implement his vision.
John Carroll, who was a scientist with IBM for 17 years before entering academia, feels Jobs was a very unusual, hands-on manager. In his experience, “most executives never leave a personal imprint on products. Jobs was really a different kind of leader. His vision pervaded the company.” And, happily, his innovations now pervade our lives.
Find out more: (1) Human Computer Interaction (HCI). In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). "Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction". Carroll, John M., 2011. http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/human_computer_interaction_hci.html (2) Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines. http://developer.apple.com/library/mac/ - documentation/UserExperience/Conceptual/AppleHIGuidelines/Intro/Intro.html