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You can try and make a record with a pair of studio cans, but there are some limitations to doing so. At their foundation, interfaces act as the fulcrum of your studio, making sure that you can connect your instruments, monitors, computer, etc. There are a variety of things to consider when looking for your audio interface. As for the opposite, some producers are going to want to record full bands. A professional live drum recording will require at least 4 microphones, though typically uses 8 or more. The same goes for producers who want to work with multiple output sources such as a subwoofer or a secondary set of studio monitors.

Audio interfaces can range from having 2 channels to hundreds of channels, so it is really up to you to figure out how many you truly need. Like we said in the beginning of the article, the audio interface is the fulcrum between your computer, the speakers, and the instrument. Some connection types have advantages over others as well, which we will discuss. USB audio interfaces seem to be the most widely used in small home studios. They are incredibly affordable and are far more flexible than other interfaces, as the majority of computer systems have USB ports.

This makes them perfect for producers who are on the go or those who are recording in a mobile fashion from their laptops. The unfortunate characteristic of USB interfaces is that they have the slowest data transfer out of all connections, meaning you might run into latency issues, especially when recording multiple channels at once. Firewire is the first step up from USB and can typically be found on higher-end audio interfaces. The data transfer with Firewire is faster and more consistent than with USB, meaning you can run simultaneous inputs and outputs more reliably.

Some interfaces work with Firewire and some with Firewire , having double the bandwidth of The biggest disadvantage with Firewire is that fewer computers are manufactured with Firewire ports these days. Also, if you operate on a PC, you may need to install a firewire card - not good! Thunderbolt connections offer insane high-speed data transfer and low latency, making it one of the top choices for connecting multiple audio interfaces.

The latest Macs have Thunderbolt 3 ports which are two times as fast as Thunderbolt 2 and almost ten times as fast as USB. You can also find Thunderbolt creeping into the PC world via add in-cards and onboard ports. PCIe connections are in a realm of their own. Rather than being physical cables, they are internal card-based connections that you find in desktop computers. Audio Interfaces with PCIe connections can be found in many professional studios and are typically more expensive than other types of interfaces because of their fast data speeds.

The same goes for audio interfaces. Having high-quality digital converters, mic preamps, and other components, can largely affect the cost.

That being said, even the biggest audio interface manufacturers have low-cost models with professional components nowadays. Here are some of the most important sound quality factors you need to know before buying:. We could spend hours talking about the science behind it, though all you truly need to know is:.

CDs use bit standard with a dynamic range of 96dB. The negative side is that the digital recordings have high noise floors. They provide tons of headroom and allow for smoother and more dynamic recordings. The sample rate is the number of samples of audio carried per second. Converters are what turn the analog signal recording into a digital form that your computer can understand.

On the flip side they also convert a digital signal from the computer into an analog signal that your playback system can understand - typically, a pair of studio monitors. Though people mostly speak on sample rate and bit depth, converter quality is just as important. A low-quality converter is not going to give you the same fidelity as a high-quality converter. There are two main types of audio interfaces regarding shape and size:. Desktop-sized audio interfaces are perfect for newbies in the recording game or those with bedroom studios, as they are typically less expensive and can fit on top of your desk without taking up too much real estate.

Rack-mounted audio interfaces are more expensive and are typically best for producers who have more experience. Lastly, there are some audio interfaces with special DSP digital signal processing built onboard to dedicate interface to digital processing tasks rather than giving your computer the entire burden. These control panels can be used to route audio signals, add effects, add processing like reverb and compression, and control levels, among other things.

Focusrite has set somewhat of a standard regarding manufacturing pro-quality audio interfaces as such low prices. For the price, it is surprisingly low latency. Because it is USB powered, it is a perfect interface for the traveling producer. All of this, including the quality Focusrite preamps, is wrapped up in a beautiful, sleek red casing that feels bulletproof. When you purchase this little guy, you also get Pro Tools First and the Focusrite Creative Pack, meaning you can get started recording on a track software with 12 included plugins. When the software designer defines the interactive aspects of her program, when she places these pseudo-mechanical affordances and describes their behavior, she is doing a virtual form of industrial design.

Whether she realizes it or not. The software designer can thus approach her art as a fusion of graphic design and industrial design. Software is for people. To derive what software should do, we have to start with what people do. Consider it a set of basis vectors into the space of human activity. Different basis sets are helpful for reasoning about different problems, but they all describe the same space.

But people are increasingly shifting their intellectual activities to the virtual world of the computer. This suggests three general reasons why a person will turn to software:. I propose that software can be classified according to which of these needs it serves. I will call these categories information software, manipulation software, and communication software. Information software serves the human urge to learn. A person uses information software to construct and manipulate a model that is internal to the mind —a mental representation of information.

Good information software encourages the user to ask and answer questions, make comparisons, and draw conclusions. A person would use recipe software, for example, to decide what to cook for dinner. In effect, she is constructing an internal understanding of culinary possibilities, and mentally prodding this model to reveal the optimal choice.

Manipulation software serves the human urge to create. A person uses manipulation software to construct and manipulate a model external to herself —a virtual object represented within the computer, or a remote physical object. Some examples include software for drawing, writing, music composition, architectural design, engineering design, and robot control.

Manipulation software can be considered a virtual tool —like a paintbrush or typewriter or bandsaw, it is used as an interface between creator and artifact. Communication software serves the human urge to communicate. A person uses communication software to construct and manipulate an internal model that is shared with others —an understanding synchronized across multiple minds.

Examples include software for email, group discussions whether voice, video, or text , and collaborative working. In terms of raw mechanics, communication can be thought of as creating a response to information learned —that is, the external model manipulated by the speaker is the internal model learned by the listener. Thus, this paper will simply treat communication software as manipulation software and information software glued together, and mention it no further. This design approach is widespread—email software typically has separate reading and writing modes; messageboards similarly segregate browsing and posting.

Manipulation software generally displays a representation of an object—the model—which the user directly manipulates with pseudo-mechanical affordances. Because manipulation is the domain of industrial design, manipulation software emphasizes industrial design aspects. Consider a tool for laying out a small newspaper.

The user will spend most of her time performing a number of pseudo-physical operations—writing, drawing, cutting, moving, rotating, stretching, cropping, layering—within a virtual space. The primary design challenge, just as with any industrial design, is to provide affordances that make these mechanical operations available , understandable , and comfortable. However, in a physical space, each operation would use a specialized tool. Although manipulation is the focus, good manipulation software must provide superb visualization as well. This establishes the feedback loop that is critical for all creative activity—the manipulator must see the effects of her manipulation.

Thus, manipulation software design is also a significant graphic design challenge. For example, the newspaper editor needs to see what a page looks like—close-up, from a distance, and in relation to other pages—and how it would look in a variety of other configurations. She wants to see misspelled words, lines that are poorly justified or hyphenated, and widows and orphans. She wants to see columns that are short or overlong, and how they can be corrected by changing column width or leading.

She wants to know what stories and ads are still on the table, their sizes, and how they can be fit in. She wants to know how recently and how often stories about a given topic have run, and how readers have responded. She wants to know past response to a given ad, as a function of the topics or authors of the stories it was coupled with. Finally, the presentation of all this information must not distract the editor from the primary task of manipulating the layout. Furthermore, the industrial and graphic designs in manipulation software must be in intimate synergy, since it is the graphic design which describes how the object can be manipulated—the mechanical affordances are graphical constructs.

Even more graphically challenging is manipulation of abstract objects, such as music or financial data, where the graphical representation must show not only what can be done with it, but what it is in the first place. Fortunately, for an enormous class of software, manipulation is not only largely unnecessary, but best avoided. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot.

Their primary concern was how a machine could help a person find and understand relevant knowledge. Although they were generally discussing scientific and professional work, their prescience fully applies in the modern home. Most of the time, a person sits down at her personal computer not to create, but to read, observe, study, explore, make cognitive connections, and ultimately come to an understanding.

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This person is not seeking to make her mark upon the world, but to rearrange her own neurons. The computer becomes a medium for asking questions, making comparisons, and drawing conclusions—that is, for learning. People turn to software to learn the meaning of words, learn which countries were bombed today, and learn to cook a paella. They decide which music to play, which photos to print, and what to do tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday at They keep track of a dozen simultaneous conversations in private correspondence, and maybe hundreds in public arenas.

They browse for a book for Mom, a coat for Dad, and a car for Junior.

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They look for an apartment to live in, and a bed for that apartment, and perhaps a companion for the bed. They ask when the movie is playing, and how to drive to the theater, and where to eat before the movie, and where to get cash before they eat. They ask for numbers, from simple sums to financial projections. They ask about money, from stock quote histories to bank account balances.

They no longer sit on the porch speculating about the weather— they ask software. Much current software fulfilling these needs presents mechanical metaphors and objects to manipulate, but this is deceiving. People using this software do not care about these artificial objects; they care about seeing information and understanding choices—manipulating a model in their heads.

For example, consider calendar or datebook software. To me, it is about combining, correlating, and visualizing a vast collection of information. I want to see my pattern of working late before milestones, and how that extrapolates to future milestones. I want to see how all of this information interrelates, make connections, and ultimately make a decision about what to do when. My goal in using calendar software to ask and answer questions about what to do when, compare my options, and come to a decision.

Consider personal finance software. Entering and classifying my expenses is, again, tedious and unnecessary manipulation—my credit card already tracks these details. I use the software to understand my financial situation and my spending habits. How much of my paycheck goes to rent? How much to Burrito Shack? If I give up extra guacamole on my daily burrito, will I be able to buy a new laptop?

If I buy a hybrid car, how much will I save on gas? I want to ask and answer questions, compare my options, and let it guide my spending decisions. Consider an online retailer, such as Amazon or Netflix. The entire purpose of the website—the pictures, ratings, reviews, and suggestions—is to let me find, understand, and compare their offerings.

The experience is about building a decision inside my head. In the end, I manipulate a shopping cart, but that is merely to put my mental process to effect, to reify the decision. At the best retailers, this manipulation is made as brief as possible. Even consider reading email. Most current designs revolve around the manipulation of individual messages—reading them one-by-one, searching them, sorting them, filing them, deleting them. But the purpose of reading email has nothing to do with the messages themselves. I read email to keep a complex set of mental understandings up-to-date—the statuses of personal conversations, of projects at work, of invitations and appointments and business transactions and packages in the mail.

That this information happens to be parceled out in timestamped chunks of text is an implementation detail of the communication process. It is not necessarily a good way to present the information to a learner. Similar arguments can be made for most software. So far, this categorization has just been an exercise in philosophy.

But this philosophy suggests a very practical approach to software design. My demands are perfect examples of graphic design challenges. A well-designed information graphic can almost compel the viewer to ask and answer questions, make comparisons, and draw conclusions. This design may be adequate for commuters, whose questions mostly concern when trains arrive at stations.

But train system operators have a different set of questions: Where exactly are the trains at any given time? How fast are they moving? Where do two trains cross?

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They better not be on the same track at that point! Where are the trains at the start of the day, and where do they end up at night? If a train is delayed, how do all these answers change? Like some of the software questions above, these questions seem very difficult to answer.

But consider this revised timetable design:. Each train is represented by a distinctly-colored line, with distance along the track plotted vertically and time horizontally. Important features such as crossings are emphasized simply because the eye is naturally drawn toward line intersections. Footnotes are unnecessary; the exceptions are no longer exceptional when seen in context.

Compared to excellent ink-and-paper designs, most current software communicates deplorably. This is a problem of surface, but not a superficial problem. The main cause, I believe, is that many software designers feel they are designing a machine. Their foremost concern is behavior—what the software does. They start by asking: What functions must the software perform? What commands must it accept? What parameters can be adjusted? In the case of websites: What pages must there be?

How are they linked together? What are the dynamic features? These designers start by specifying functionality , but the essence of information software is the presentation. It must be mentioned that there is a radically alternative approach for information software— games. Playing is essentially learning through structured manipulation—exploration and practice instead of pedagogic presentation. Despite the enormous potential for mainstream software, accidents of history and fashion have relegated games to the entertainment bin, and the stigma of immaturity is tough to overcome.

The situation is similar for graphic novels. I suggest that the design of information software should be approached initially and primarily as a graphic design project. The foremost concern should be appearance—what and how information is presented. The designer should ask: What is relevant information? What questions will the viewer ask? What situations will she want to compare? What decision is she trying to make? How can the data be presented most effectively?

The designer must start by considering what the software looks like , because the user is using it to learn, and she learns by looking at it. Instead of dismissing ink-and-paper design as a relic of a previous century, the software designer should consider it a baseline. It seems that many software designers, in their focus on functionality, forget to actually present the data. Consider the information presented when searching a popular online bookstore. There are a number of graphic design criticisms one could make—the uniform text size and weight results in a solid, oppressive mass; the abundance of saturated primary colors gives a distracting, carnival-like appearance; the text is spread all over the page, giving the eye no well-defined path to follow.

However, the most egregious problem is simply that there is not enough information to make any sort of decision. Given that the books shown are presumably related to this topic, what questions does the user have? The answers will be used to compare the available books, and decide upon one to follow up on and possibly buy. Unfortunately, these questions are completely unaddressed by the information provided. To see relevant information, the user must click on each listing individually.

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That is, she must navigate by hand instead of by eye , and must use her memory to compare information across time instead of space. The problem is that this graphic was designed as an index into a set of webpages, but is used as a catalog for comparing a set of books. The purpose of this graphic should not be to return a list of query matches, but to help the user learn about books related to her topic of interest.

Is a book appropriate? Is a book good? A rating and reviews indicate popular opinion. Because all of this information is on a single page, it can be compared by eye, with no need for memory. The standard 5-star rating system is information-weak—it gives only an average. It can be enhanced with whiskers underneath that indicate the distribution of ratings.

This allows the viewer to differentiate between a book that was unanimously judged middling and one that was loved and hated —these are both 3-star ratings, but have very different meanings. The viewer can also see whether a highly-rated book got any bad reviews; in a sea of praise, criticism often makes enlightening reading. As a whole, the whiskers give a visual indication of the number of ratings, which reflects the trustworthiness of the average.

Text weight and color is used to emphasize important information and call it out when skimming. Text in grey can be read when focused upon, but disappears as background texture when skimming. All critical information is contained in a column with the width of an eyespan , with a picture to the left and supplementary information to the right. The viewer can thus run her eye vertically down this column; when she spots something interesting, she will slow down and explore horizontally.

The user wants to see books related to a topic in her head. But ideas in the head are nebulous things, and may not translate perfectly to a concrete search term. For this reason, a mini-list of related books is provided for each book. Conventional software designers will worry about functionality—how does the user interact with this graphic? What else could the user mean by clicking? This is a significant redesign over the original; yet, I consider it a conservative one. A more ambitious design could surely show even more data, perhaps allowing the user to browse within the book or fully explore the space of related books.

A world of possibilities opens up with a simple change of mindset. This is not a list of search results—it is an information graphic. It is for learning. Just as important as what data is shown is where it is shown. Unlike the words in a paragraph, the elements in a graphic can be deliberately placed to encourage spatial reasoning. Unfortunately, most software graphics are arranged to maximize aesthetics, not to bring out useful relationships in the data.

That is, when any skilled thought is given to appearance at all. The user will use the answers to compare the available movie showings and decide upon one to go see. Although the above graphic clearly has an information deficiency What are these movies about? Are they good? Understanding which movies are playing when involves scanning a pageful of theaters, extracting movies of interest and mentally merging their showtimes. As with the bookstore redesign, enough information is given about each movie to determine its content and quality, although films have enough external marketing that the intent is more to remind than introduce.

Text weight is again employed to make critical information stand out and supplementary information disappear until focused upon. More interesting is the chart on the right, which plots movie showings by time. To find all movie showings around a particular time, the viewer simply scans her eye vertically down the page. The original design grouped movies by theater; this redesign groups theaters by movie. The assumption is that the viewer would rather see a particular movie at any theater than any movie at a particular theater.

However, to ease correlation of the various movies offered at a given theater, each theater is color-coded. If the viewer prefers to avoid the Gulliver Theater because of sticky floors, the consistent yellow background may help her filter out its showtimes. No theater addresses are shown.

This demonstration and the previous one have attempted to illustrate the power of approaching information software as graphic design , instead of as styling the regurgitation of a database. To design excellent software, however, this mindset is necessary but insufficient. Something major is missing. Very little in the above designs is software-specific. For the most part, the designs would work almost as well on paper.

Print has one supreme flaw: ink is indelible. An ink-and-paper design is static—it must display all its data, all the time. However, a reader typically only cares about a subset relevant to her current situation. The designer is faced with the challenge of organizing the data so that hopefully mutually-relevant subsets are grouped together, and the reader has the challenge of visually or physically navigating through the entire data space to find the group of interest.

For example, a rider consulting a bus schedule must comb through a matrix of times and stations to find the single relevant data point—the time of the next bus. And a reader consulting an encyclopedia must not only find the right entry on the page and the right page in the book, but even the right book on the shelf! These are consequences of static graphics.

Because ink is permanent, the reader must navigate through lots of paper. The modern computer system provides the first visual medium in history to overcome this restriction. Software can:. Liberating us from the permanence of publication is the undersung crux of the computer—the dynamic display screen. Its pixels are magic ink—capable of absorbing their context and reflecting a unique story for every reader. And the components surrounding the display—CPU, storage, network, input devices—are its peripherals for inferring context. Information software design, then, is the design of context-sensitive information graphics.

Unlike conventional graphics, which must be suitable for any reader in any situation, a context-sensitive graphic incorporates who the user is and what exactly the user wants to learn at the moment. All information software consists of context-sensitive graphics, whether the designer realizes it or not.

For example, the list of query results from an internet search engine is a context-sensitive information graphic. This is winnowed down to a dozen, using context that is inferred entirely from the search term contributed by the user. Despite its enormous data space, this software restricts itself to a meager scrap of context, impersonal and imprecise.

A person determines her surroundings through the five human senses. Date and time. A person using a software bus schedule, for example, should never have to hunt for the next bus. Geographical location. Developers would then write software to take advantage of it, and other computer makers would follow suit.

Someday, a computer without GPS might seem as silly as a computer without a clock. Physical environment. Given a time and location, many details of the physical environment, such as the weather, are just a network connection away. Consider a travel guide that suggests parks when sunny and museums when rainy. Other information software , such as open websites.

By reading some information, the user is indicating a topic of interest. All other information software should take heed. Consider a person reading the website of an upcoming stage play. When she opens her calendar, the available showings should be marked. When she opens a map, she should see directions to the playhouse. Documents created with manipulation software. Creating some information indicates an even stronger topic of interest. Names, addresses, and phone numbers in recent email clearly constitute valuable hints. When she opens a map, addresses in the email should be marked.

All software lives within an environment, rich with evidence of context. Implementation will be discussed later in the paper. On the other hand, the power of the environment is multiplied when it is correlated with the past—that is, when the software makes use of history. Software, too, can use its memory to understand the present. The current context, or a good approximation, can often be predicted from a history of past environments and interactions. Last-value predictors represent the simplest form of prediction. They simply predict the current context to be the same as the previous one.

For example, if yesterday, the user looked for one-bedroom apartments in North Berkeley, she is is probably still interested in one-bedroom apartments in North Berkeley today. If nothing else, the software should present this information immediately, without asking for details. Last-value prediction is frequently thought of and implemented as manipulation of explicit state—that is, the context is a persistent object that remains as is unless changed by the user, so the software always appears as the user left it.

Often, not even this is bothered with. However, this is often not the case with information software, especially software that is consulted intermittently. On the other hand, you would be delighted if you often came back to find it on exactly the page you wanted to read. By thinking of this as context prediction instead of state maintenance, the door is opened to more sophisticated predictors. Learning predictors attempt a deeper understanding of the user. They construct a model to explain past contexts, and use the inferred relationships to predict the current context.

For example, in a music library, as the user chooses several bluegrass songs in a row, the software can graphically emphasize other songs in this genre. With further confidence, it might consider de-emphasizing or omitting songs outside of the genre. In fact, information about Maya could be presented automatically. If a person asks a travel guide about the Grand Canyon on one day, and Las Vegas the next day, the following day the software might suggest attractions around Los Angeles. As an example of general pattern modeling, consider a person who, as a byproduct of traveling to work, always checks the train schedule from Berkeley to San Francisco in the morning, and San Francisco to Berkeley in the evening.

If the software can discover and model this pattern, it can present the appropriate information at each time without the user having to request it. When she looks in the morning, she sees by default the San Francisco-bound schedule; in the evening, the Berkeley-bound schedule. Flynn, Like This? New York Times , Jan. TiVo similarly uses a collaborative predictor to infer which television programs the user would be interested in. Amazon, iTunes, and an increasing number of other online retailers are currently incorporating similar schemes.

However, with the exception of the lowly junk-mail filter, non-retail information software that learns from history is still rare. Typically, users can only hope for last-value prediction, if that. Most software wakes up each day with a fresh case of amnesia. And repeat it they will—tediously explaining their context, mouse click by mouse click, keystroke by keystroke, wasted hour by wasted hour. This is called interactivity. Chris Crawford defines interaction as a three-phase reciprocal process, isomorphic to a conversation: an interactant listens to her partner, thinks about what was said, and speaks a response.

Her partner then does the same. For manipulation software, interaction is perfectly suitable: the user views a visual representation of the model, considers what to manipulate next, and performs a manipulation. It mimics the experience of working with a physical tool. Information software, by contrast, mimics the experience of reading , not working. It is used for achieving an understanding—constructing a model within the mind. Thus, the user must listen to the software and think about what it says… but any manipulation happens mentally.

For information software, all interaction is essentially navigation around a data space. For a yellow pages directory, the data space contains all business listings; for a movie guide, all showtimes and movie information; for a flight planner, trips to and from all airports. This is simply navigation. Alan Cooper defines excise in this context as a cognitive or physical penalty for using a tool—effort demanded by the tool that is not directly in pursuit of a goal.

For example, filling a gas tank is done to support the car, not the goal of arriving at a destination. Cooper goes on to assert that software navigation is nothing but excise:. Except in games where the goal is to navigate successfully through a maze of obstacles, navigation through software does not meet user goals, needs, or desires. Unnecessary or difficult navigation thus becomes a major frustration to users.

If all interaction is navigation, and navigation is the number-one software problem, interactivity is looking pretty bad already. However, when compared with the other two sources of context, interactivity has even worse problems than simply being a frustrating waste of time:. The user has to already know what she wants in order to ask for it.

Purely interactive software forces the user to make the first move. The user has to know how to ask. That is, she must learn to manipulate a machine. However, Norman described this concept in the context of mechanical devices. It only applies to software if the software actually contains hidden mechanisms that the user must model.

A low-interaction, non-mechanical information graphic relieves both user and designer from struggling with mental models. Navigation implies state. Software that can be navigated is software in which the user can get lost. The more navigation, the more corners to get stuck in. Beyond these cognitive problems are physical disadvantages of interaction. The hand is much slower than the eye. Licklider described spending hours plotting graphs and seconds understanding them.

A user who must manually request information is in a similar situation—given the mismatch between mousing and reading speeds, most of her time may be spent navigating, not learning. Further, the user might prefer to learn information while using her hands for other purposes, such as writing or eating or stroking a cat. Finally, the growing prevalence of computer-related repetitive stress injuries suggests that indiscriminate interactivity may be considerably harmful in a literal, physical sense. Unless it is enjoyable or educational in and of itself, interaction is an essentially negative aspect of information software.

There is a net positive benefit if it significantly expands the range of questions the user can ask, or improves the ease of locating answers, but there may be other roads to that benefit. As suggested by the above redesigns of the train timetable, bookstore, and movie listings, many questions can be answered simply through clever, information-rich graphic design. Interaction should be used judiciously and sparingly , only when the environment and history provide insufficient context to construct an acceptable graphic.

Interaction is merely one means of achieving that. The working designer might protest that interaction is unavoidable in practice, and may even consider my ideal of interaction-free software to be a scoff-worthy fantasy. This is only because the alternatives have been unrecognized and underdeveloped.

I believe that with the invention of new context-sensitive graphical forms and research into obtaining and using environment and history, the clicking and dragging that characterizes modern information retrieval will be made to seem laughably archaic. When the user is forced to interact, the software assumes the form of manipulation software. However, unlike genuine manipulation software, the user does not care about this model—it is merely a means to the end of seeing relevant information. Assuming that graphic design, history, and the environment have been taken as far as they will go, there are a few techniques that can lessen the impact of the remaining interaction:.

Graphical manipulation. Modern GUIs may be easier to use, but they are not much different in that respect. The GUI language consists of a grammar of menus, buttons, and checkboxes, each labeled with a vocabulary of generally decontextualized short phrases. Two of the most fundamental context dimensions are where and when. For millennia, people have described these concepts with specialized information graphics. These drop-down menus are awkward and uninformative. Geographical locations belong on maps, and dates belong on calendars.

Consider this redesign:. Even this is not ideal. But until platforms that enable such a thing are widespread, software can at least provide temporary ones. As an example of more application-specific context, a prominent online flower shop lets the user narrow the view via a set of drop-down menus. Compare it with a simple visually-oriented redesign:. Many types of context can be naturally expressed in some informative graphical domain, relieving the user from manipulating information-free general-purpose controls.

Several more examples will be given in the case study below. Relative navigation. If the software properly infers as much as possible from history and the environment, it should be able to produce at least a reasonable starting point for the context model. This is generally less stressful than constructing the entire context from scratch. For example, Google Maps offers both absolute navigation typing in an address and relative navigation panning and zooming the current map.

However, it initially displays by default the entire continent; this effectively demands that the user type in an absolute location to get started. A better design might start at the last place the user looked last-value prediction , with a nearby list of locations predicted by history recently visited or manually bookmarked and the environment addresses extracted from email, open websites, and calendar software. An even better design would recognize the prediction list as information software in its own right, and would take steps to show the data such as annotating the predictions with driving times to and from common locations, taking current traffic conditions into account and arrange the data perhaps spatially arranging the predictions on their own map.

Tight feedback loops. Salen and Zimmerman offer a game design perspective on a principle that is crucial for all interactive software:. If you shoot an asteroid while playing a computer game and the asteroid does not change in any way, you are not going to know if you actually hit it or not. If you do not receive feedback that indicates you are on the right track, the action you took will have very little meaning.

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On the other hand, if you shoot an asteroid and you hear the sound of impact, or the asteroid shudders violently, or it explodes or all three! This principle is universal. If the user clicks a checkbox and nothing happens , her action is rendered ambiguous or even meaningless. She cannot evaluate a response and let it guide her next action. For information software in particular, all interaction specifies context. Thus, each interaction can and should result in a discernible change to a context-sensitive information graphic.

Providing immediate feedback reduces the amount of manipulation the user must do before either reaching an adequate view or recognizing a wrong turn and backtracking. Google Maps offers reasonable feedback during relative navigation, but none during absolute navigation, such as typing in an address. Because of the immediate feedback, the user can stop typing when she gets close enough, and use relative navigation from there. Much current software is interaction-heavy and information-weak.

I can think of a few reasons for this. First, our current UI paradigm was invented in a different technological era. The initial Macintosh, for example, had no network, no mass storage, and little inter-program communication. Thus, it knew little of its environment beyond the date and time, and memory was too precious to record significant history. Twenty years and an internet explosion later, software has much more to say, but an inadequate language with which to say it. Today, their windows and menus are like buggy whips on a car.

A second reason why modern software is dominated by mechanical metaphors is that, for the people who create software, the computer is a machine. The programmer lives in manipulation mode; she drives her computer as if it were a car. Thus, she inadvertently produces software that must be operated like a machine, even if it is used as a newspaper or book.

Worse, the people who design platforms and GUI toolkits are even more prone to this perspective, since they work at a lower level. The application software designer is then almost forced into a mechanical model by the design environment. Dynamic graphics, the cornerstone of information software, must be tediously programmed with low-level constructs. Even software that starts out information-rich and interaction-simple tends to accumulate wasteful manipulation as features are added over successive versions. After ten versions, the software can grow into a monstrosity, with the user spending more time pulling down menus than studying and learning information. The design has clearly been successful. Even though the target audience is fairly small SF bay area public transportation riders with the latest Mac OS and knowledge of how to customize it , user feedback has been wildly enthusiastic , and the widget received the Apple Design Award, as well as Macworld magazine's rare perfect rating.

If you are unfamiliar with the widget, you can watch a one-minute demo movie:. As information software, the widget was approached primarily as a graphic design project. I will discuss how its design exemplifies the viewpoints in this paper, and also point out where it falls short and could be improved. Thus, the widget does not reflect new ideas conceived while writing this. The BART widget was designed around three classical forms of graphical communication: the timeline, the map, and the sentence. Information software allows the user to ask and answer questions, make comparisons, and draw conclusions.

In the case of trip planning, some questions are:. Users use the answers to compare the available trips, and draw a conclusion about which to take. I will take the train. The choice of graphical representation depends on what sort of data space is left after context-based winnowing. What context can be inferred? The user is expecting to leave around a particular time; thus, the graphic can exclude trips outside of some narrow time window.

That is, the user wants to compare trips along the time dimension, but not the space dimensions. After winnowing the data, we are left with a handful of trips—ordered, overlapping spans of time. We need a graphical construct that allows the viewer to compare the start, end, and length of each span. A natural choice is a time bar graph , which allows for important qualitative comparisons at a glance: When does each span start and end?

How long is each span? How close together are they? The time bar graph may have been invented by proto-chemist Joseph Priestly in to compare the lifespans of various historical figures. Howard Wainer claims to have uncovered a bar graph from years earlier, plotting population changes in the tribes of Isreal after the exodus. See Graphic Discovery , p The most important context, the current time, can be emphasized by shading the past. The most important data point, the next train, can be emphasized by keeping it in a constant location, the second row. This answers the most important qualitative questions: Is the next train coming soon?

Did I just miss a train? The graphic can then be unobtrusively annotated with quantitative information, so closer inspection answers all of the questions precisely:. Transfers can be regarded as segmentation of the overall trip. The question that must be answered exactly is where to transfer. The questions of when and how long should be answered qualitatively; the exact times would be irrelevant clutter.

In contradiction to the premise of interaction design, this software is at its best when acting non-interactively. Accordingly, all interactive mechanisms—the buttons and bookmarks list—are hidden when the mouse pointer is outside the widget. Unless the user deliberately wants to interact with it, the widget appears as a pure information graphic with no manipulative clutter. Of course, if the predicted context is wrong, the user must interact to correct it.

This involves navigation in the usual two dimensions, time and space. The widget naturally stays in sync, always displaying relevant information. There are two cases in which this context is incorrect:. To see earlier or later trips, the user can simply drag the graphic around.

A cursor change suggests this, as well as a brief message when the widget is first started. Thus, a GUI scrollbar would be inappropriate. Absolute navigation. To plan around an arbitrary time, the user clicks a button to reveal the hours of the day, from morning to night, laid out linearly. The user can then click anywhere on the mechanism to jump to that time. This forces the user to keep her eyes on the information graphic, instead of wasting effort precisely manipulating the navigation mechanism.

Instead of precise, tedious absolute navigation, offer quick ballpark navigation, followed by relative navigation in a tight feedback loop. Unlike the time of day, the predicted date today is probably close—few people plan subway trips weeks in advance. Thus, the date control is relative. The assumed context includes where the user is coming from and where she is going.

There are three cases for which the context is incorrect. The most common case is that the user is making a round trip, and wants to come home. The second case is that the user is making a common trip, and knows exactly where she wants to go. The bookmarks feature serves this case. When the user clicks the heart button , the trip is added to a bookmarks list. From then on, that trip and its reverse can be selected with a click. No manipulation is needed to bring up the bookmarks list—it slides out when the mouse is over the widget. In many cases, that would eliminate the need to even click on the bookmark.

The most interesting case is the least common, but the most stressful for the user—selection of an unfamiliar station. The user needs information to decide which station to travel to; thus, this can be approached as an information software problem in itself. Some questions the user might have:. These questions involve orientation and navigation in a physical two-dimensional space.

The standard graphical device for this situation is the map. This map courtesy of newmediasoup. Once the user has decided, she must indicate her selection to the software. This manipulation can be done in the same graphical domain as the information. Ideally, the map would always be visible. A better design might then overlay dynamic information on the map, such as the positions of the trains and arrival times at stations. The widget can speak announcements of upcoming trains.

Hear a sample. Vocal announcements were originally a semi-hidden Easter Egg, but they got enough of a user response that they were moved up to first-class feature. The design challenge is allowing the user to express if and when she wants announcements. A typical design would use a preference dialog or form that the user would manipulate to tell the software what to do. However, an information design approach starts with the converse—the software must explain to the user what it will do. It must graphically express the current configuration. For presenting abstract, non-comparative information such as this, an excellent graphical element is simply a concise sentence.

As with the map, once the information graphic is established, manipulation can be incorporated. In this case, some words are colored red, and the user can click on these words to change them. The user always sees the software presenting information, instead of herself instructing the software. If the information presented is wrong, the user corrects it in place. The graphic fades out when the mouse is clicked outside of it or the mouse leaves the widget. This approach scales well to more complex configuration. The widget allows spoken announcements to be associated with a bookmark and a particular time.

This is useful for daily trips, such as to and from work. Sentence-based configuration scales so well because parameters are given meaning by the surrounding textual context, which can itself consist of other parameters. But surely these people were parsing and producing complete sentences long before they could manage a dialog box. The human brain actually does have some hard-wiring. Some additional graphical touches help bring the design together.

The sentence is contained within a cartoon speech bubble which, beyond simply looking cute, implies that the activity pertains to speech, and points via the tail to the button which spawned it and the trip to which it refers. The trip planner on the official BART website refuses to divulge any information whatsoever without a sequence of menu selections and a button-push.

Because the BART system is two-dimensional, no linear arrangement of the stations can convey useful information. The user can click a link to see a map, but the map graphic is static; the selection must be made through drop-down menus. Information and navigation are completely segregated, and the feedback loop is enormous. The starting and ending stations, always the same, clutter the results.

Transfers are treated as two separate trips, and the relevant times the start and end of the entire trip are in opposite corners, with distracting clutter in between. Not only does the information not stay in sync with the current time, there is no relative time information at all. For all its interactivity, the information here is sparse, poorly presented, and hard to get to. Yet, this sort of design is so typical of software on all platforms, it has almost become an accepted norm. Ironically, the BART widget appears so fresh because its underlying ideas are so old.

The time bar graph was invented about years ago. The map and the written sentence are both about years old. They are beautiful, venerable forms of visual communication. The bugs have been worked out. They are universally, intuitively understood. The pulldown menu, the checkbox, and the bureaucracy-inspired text entry form were invented 25 years ago, desperation devices to counter inadequate technology. They were created for a world that no longer exists.

Good information software reflects how humans, not computers, deal with information. The airline industry, on the other hand, has every incentive to give customers a smooth decision-making experience. However, planning a trip through the sky is almost identical to planning one underground. Additional columns to the right are not shown. The times and lengths of the flights, and the count, times, and lengths of stops and transfers, can be compared visually.

Trips without transfers stand out because they are entirely blue; non-stop flights would appear unbroken. Anomalies, such as the from Hartford which arrives later than the , stand out literally. Times can be converted into either time zone simply by referencing the appropriate header bar. There is some attempt to use color symbolically. However, it is not critical that the user notice this. Interaction is simplified to the point where a short, instructive sentence can describe each and every click. At the most, the user will click twice on the map, drag across the calendar, and click twice on the ticket prices, possibly with some page scrolling.

Last-value prediction automatically selecting the last route purchased, and displaying a list of recent trips may eliminate or reduce the map clicks for many travelers. A learning predictor, capable of inferring that the user always spends the first Monday through Friday of the month in Baltimore and selecting that range on the calendar automatically, could eliminate all context-establishing interaction, leaving only the decision-conveying interaction of clicking ticket prices.

Of course, since everything is on the same page and feedback loops are tight, the user can explore different dates and cities, and see the available flights immediately. With air travel in a slump for the past few years, airlines have been desperate for any passengers they can get. Unsuccessful ones have even faced bankruptcy.

The problem is primarily cultural. Mass production of machines emerged at the start of the 20th century. But many of these products were unpleasant to interact with. Within a few decades, a new profession arose to fill the gap—industrial design. The next revolution in the mass production of machines was software. The late s saw the rise of the personal computer, a device capable of behaving as any machine—typewriter, adding machine, filing cabinet, arcade game—when given the right instructions.

But much of this software was unpleasant to interact with. Within a couple decades, a new profession arose to fill the gap—interaction design. The mass production of information has a very different history than the mass production of machines. Industrial design brought art to existing mass-produced technology, but printing brought mass-producing technology to an existing art. Before the 15th century, books were precious and extremely rare, for each had to be copied by hand. A single book might cost as much as a farm.

Books were also exquisite works of art, carefully lettered in calligraphy, lavishly illustrated and decorated. Fortunately, Gutenberg and contemporary printers were exceptionally devoted to the art form, and took great pains to preserve the quality of the hand-lettered page. When people noticed the quantity and similarity of the books, they did not suspect printing, but witchcraft! The explosion of new books of all kinds, as well as the rise of the broadside precursor to the poster and the newspaper , created a great demand for artists in the new medium, many of whom transitioned from the old medium.

The art of laying out a page eventually became known as graphic design. The next revolution in the mass production of information was the web. Unlike early printers, unfortunately, early web technologists cared little for the artistic qualities of their predecessor, but the capabilities eventually evolved to approximate the printed page on the computer screen.

Publishing was now just a matter of sending bits through a wire. The explosion of websites created a great demand for artists in the new medium, many of whom transitioned from the old medium. The art of laying out a webpage became known as web design. These parallel evolutions have produced designers for interactive machines conventional software and designers for static page layouts conventional websites. From this viewpoint, the chimeric effects of convergence are almost to be expected. Information is trapped behind interactive mechanisms and presented in static layouts—it is the worst of both worlds.

Good context-sensitive information graphics are neither interactive nor static, neither machines nor page layouts. Design has not evolved to produce them. The culture is blind to the possibilities. The first step toward the information software revolution is widespread recognition of the need for design. It must be universally understood that information software is not a machine, but a medium for visual communication , and both publishers and public must hold it to the same standards that they hold print.

People constantly settle for ugly, clunky software, but demand informative, professionally-designed books, newspapers, magazines, and—ironically—brochures, ads, and manuals for that very software.