Jun 192013

Over my desk (over a big map of the world) I have a sign, which says “The map is not the territory”. It is a quote by Korzybski, a favorite of Bob Wilson’s (of Illuminatus! fame). Also one of me …

A short story about traffic

Today, my brother came to me and wanted the Galaxy Tab I had been using for some days now. It used to be mine, then he took it with him to China, and … actually never really gave it back. Which was mostly fine by me, I got used to it. I did go to Berlin a couple of days ago, and took it with me – I’ve switched the SIMs, installing my Fonic SIM, which includes 300 MB traffic for 10 €.

Today, I was assuming that the SIM was still installed – he asked me to have the phone after I came back from Berlin, probably to chat with some Chinese guys. Turns out it hadn’t been – he had installed his own Alice SIM. And I had been around town yesterday, him probably, too, and the packet switched traffic had not been turned off. It was not used for anything special, mostly the system running updates automatically, probably. Still …

Two things: first, it’s a very expensive mistake (traffic with Alice is about 15 Cent / 100 kB with the first 30 MB being free, if I remember correctly). Second, it’s a predictable mistake – something which can happen easily.

The problem was that our mindstates / maps of the world (in this case of the SIM inside the phone) had not been synchronised. I did not see him exchange my SIM for his SIM, and therefore did not foresee the possible “danger” of using very expensive packet switched traffic. In essence, Alice charges TOO MUCH for this traffic, making the mistake unnecessary expensive.


But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is Korzybski’s quote: The map is not the territory.

We build a mental map of everything we interact with – people, machines, animals, transportation, companies … The map can NEVER be the territory (i.e. absolutely cover every aspect of it), it is just a projection of the territory being covered.

Mostly we get by very well. Many people are quite predictable (although I find myself wishing they weren’t in some cases, still hoping for changes …). Transportation mostly is, too. Animals are.

But are machines?

Your vanilla desktop calculator sure is … but your computer (and by computer I mostly mean it’s operating system and software in general) is not.

Windows 8 will force you to try to save your unfinished / unsaved work in 15 minutes before rebooting. There is no easy possibility of preventing that for the user. Windows 7 “kindly” offered to postpone the restart for 15 minutes to 4 hours (if you were present in front of the computer during the critical phase of this dialogue).

Are you expecting your computer to be restarting out of the blue? Emphatically – never. If it would happen every hour, it would be predictable. Annoying still, but predictable – and merged into the mental map. These (rather rare) restarts occur – maybe once each month – and are not in the map.

Nor should they be. Similarly, as with Alice’s heavy penalty for a trivial mistake – this aspect of Windows should be redesigned.

The expected behaviour of the computer by the user should be the default behavior. Novice users should be the ones we model after – bringing their natural experience – interaction with their “normal” surroundings – to bear. The computer should be the one trying to guess the user’s mindstate, and not the other way around.

Some examples

  1. No more restarts without user initiation
  2. No computer initiated focus changes. Never ever. Not even for good reasons.
  3. No “USB key can not be removed” messages without informing the user EXACTLY why (no, “a program is using it” is NOT good enough – even I can’t figure out WHICH program in most cases)
  4. No silent reboots after crashes – the user should be informed about the crash, and if possible about the applications which were open at the last time
  5. Excel should not show a dialogue to recover files, and close it if you double click to open and view one of the files. (This is HUGE)
  6. State dialogues / message boxes should be part of the application, not modal dialogues (the association is easier in this case)
  7. I could go on.

Apple once had a manual on designing user interfaces. I believe we need something like that, too. For the upcoming generation of Web 2.0 apps, and the global switch to Cloud-based App Computing.

Here’s a farewell to all the old cruft, the old problems and bad user interface design. Here’s to less suffering, frustration and angry users of badly designed software. If you happen to be exposed to bad software, do the most sensible thing: turn and run!

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