Kretzschmar et al. did a study in 2013 that compared reading effort on three different media: a paper page, an e-reader (e-ink) and a tablet computer. They studied eye movement, brain activity and reading speed. The participants also answered a few questions to determine reading comprehension. The interesting thing was that all participants said that they preferred reading on paper, even though the study found no support for it being more effortful to read on digital media.
Human beings have different kinds of memory; they remember things in different ways. Three common classes of memory are spatial memory, visual memory and verbal memory. (There’s also chronological memory, but that’s not relevant to my point here.)
I have excellent spatial memory. It’s what I rely on most. For example, if I start to think about how to get to a given place in town, I literally find 3D visualizations of my route flashing into my consciousness. I also have pretty good visual memory; when I make the journey, I verify that I’m going the right way by comparing the visual appearance of buildings and landscape that I pass with the scenes I remember.
My linguistic memory is terrible. If you asked me to name the actual streets on the route, I’d have a hard time remembering them. My mental map of London, for example, only has 6 street names. This makes me a really bad person to get directions from. “You take the narrow road that heads off at a thirty degree angle, right at the place with the green copper roof, over the light colored bridge…”
There’s an upside to my condition. If you rely on verbal memory to navigate, as soon as you step outside your known area you are pretty much lost until you can find a familiar street name. In contrast, I have a pretty good chance of navigating between two known points, even if the area in between is totally new to me.
This hierarchy of types of memory also applies in my interaction with computers. When I want to find my password manager, I don’t remember its name. Instead, I remember that it’s in the bottom hierarchical menu of my KDE menu, positioned near the top, and has a green icon.
I know this experimentally, incidentally: back in the System 6 days there was a joke Mac INIT that removed all the text from the menus. I tried it, and was quite startled to discover that I could still use most of my favorite applications.
With that background out of the way, I would like to talk about why for me, the new KDE 4 application launcher is a user interface disaster of epic proportions.
Donald Norman is an expert in human computer interaction, user interface design, cybernetics—call it what you will. His book The Design of Everyday Things is a classic, and taught me how to shop for a refrigerator. (Seriously.) However, his recent rant about Google is just plain wrong. His basic point—that it’s easy to make a simple interface to a system that only does one thing—seems sensible enough. But is it true?