Me, Myself, and UI


Learn about user interfaces and apply your knowledge toward predicting the future.

A Brief History of Time

Suffice it to say, interacting with computers is getting easier and easier, though hopefully not because us humans are getting lazier and lazier. Nowadays, you don’t even have to physically touch your computer in order to interact with it, as voice user interfaces (VUI) have entered the mainstream.

Of course, before we had devices like Echo, the biggest innovation in user interfaces was probably touch-screen devices–also known as tactile user interfaces (TUI)–in particular touch-screen smart phones. And of course, as we all know, the first-ever touchscreen smartphone was introduced by Apple in 2007 with the long-anticipated… wait, huh?

Hmm… well, there’s a fun fact! To be sure, touch screen interfaces existed before even the 1990s, but in the timeline of computing, they’re still a fairly modern spin on human-machine interaction.

We stole Apple’s thunder a moment ago, but to give them some credit, they did have the first commercially-successful modern graphical user interface (GUI) for home computing, with the Macintosh 128K computer, which was released in 1984. (Windows 1.0, the analogous Microsoft-produced operating system was released one year later.

P.S. There’s actually a fascinating history of collaboration between Apple and Microsoft here, which is well worth reading up on to get some context about the modern game of rivalry and one-upsmanship between the two companies.

The computer mouse, which was popularized by the Macintosh 128K but was not itself invented by Apple (it was actually a successor, after several generations of design iteration, to the trackball, which was first invented in 1947!), was critical to the success of graphical user interfaces because it gave humans a convenient and visually-intuitive way to interact with their machines; the gestures made with the pointing devices on the surface of the desk or table was replicated by the pointing arrow on screen.

Humans had, of course, long been able to interact with machines. But from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s most of that interaction was done through a command-line interface (CLI) which can indeed be a bit more complex. (The Apple advertisement video above, though it cuts off the beginning, is effectively criticizing the then-prevailing enterprise computer system, the IBM personal computer, which required command-line interaction and came with a number of large manuals describing the various text-based commands one could use.)

Command-line interfaces are still quite common today though, as you likely saw from completing your first programming problems and working with CS50 IDE at the terminal. Many programmers still prefer command-line environments because once the commands are memorized, CLIs can be a speedy means of navigating one’s system, and they eliminate the need to use any part of the machine’s RAM to deal with the overhead that comes with supporting a GUI. Indeed, one way to resuscitate or salvage an older computer with much more limited RAM and a slower CPU is to wipe the operating system it came with and instead install thereon a lightweight flavor of Linux which relies exclusively or at least primarily on using a CLI instead of a GUI.

Permit us to take one final step back in the history of human-computer interaction. Before CLIs, GUIs, TUIs, and VUIs (enough acronyms yet?) humans primarily interacted with computers using batch interfaces. Programs were written by punching holes in cards which computers knew how to read but were submitted (in batches, hence the name), and output from those computers came via simple printers.

Phew! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to program with punch cards?

The Good, The Bad…

In that history lesson, we omitted a large variety of interface types that popped up in between (though many of them are admittedly variations on a theme), but give us credit: we did disclaim that it was a brief history. In this writing problem, we want you to do two separate things, possibly filling in some of the gaps over which we jumped.

Open a text editor and create a file called ui (be sure that the file extension is either .doc, .docx, .pdf, or .txt). First, pick two different types of interface and juxtapose them. You aren’t limited to the types we’ve spoken about above, as indeed there are numerous others. How are your chosen interfaces alike, and how are they different?

Try to go beyond the surface. Yes, a CLI is similar to a VUI inasmuch as both allow humans to interact with a computer. How else are they similar? One example might be that they both can be frustrating to use. A CLI requires you (the user) to learn the commands required to interact with the system by learning them from reading a manual; this requires time and effort. But a VUI can be tricky to work with, too. How many times have you use Siri or Google Now only to find it has completely misinterpreted what you said, requiring you to repeat yourself (perhaps ridiculously and loudly enunciating in a public space) in order to have the desired result?

The contrast part, we assume, will be a bit easier than the compare part. Again though, dig a little deeper than the obvious differences.

You should aim to write about 300 to 400 words in this part of the problem.

…and the Future

The second thing we’d like you to do is to find the nearest crystal ball and take a little time to predict the future of user interfaces. Things have certainly evolved since the 1940s, but it seems quite unlikely that we’ve reached the pinnacle of human-machine interaction already. Where do you think things are heading in the next 5 years? 10 years? 50 years?

Importantly, don’t forget this question: Why do you think your prediction is the wave of the future?

If completely unsure where to begin, head to Netflix’s repository of science fiction movies (or, if you still have one in your area, the local video rental place. Just be sure to return the movie on time; those overdue fees are just awful) for inspiration. Your creativity is the only limiting factor in this part!

You needn’t write more than 200 words for this part of the problem (both write ups should be in the same file); predicting the future is tough work! Just ask a meteorologist.