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Monday, June 27, 2016

Integrated interfaces and their discontents

One thing that's been fascinating about teaching kids technology is to see how different their experience of technology is than mine was as a child.

The overall way I'd characterize their experience of technology is technologically integrated. They expect an iPhone-like minimal interface to be the window through which you perform all technological tasks; even a distinct UI like a TV remote control has been becoming more and more of a simple thin window into a complex on-screen interface.

Whereas my generation's technologies were technologically separate--each had its own distinct interface, physical location, and rules, often quite obscure and complex: the Nintendo required fiddling and blowing, TV and video cords needed to be switched in and out, videogame controllers for different systems had different layouts, cameras had a dozen quirky physical options and switches.

The telephone was such a fundamental communications medium that it became native to me and my siblings at a very early age. Same with keyboards and mice: I vividly remember going through the introductory exercises on the first Macintosh my family got in 1988, and learning what dragging and keyboard shortcuts were.

The seven- and eight-year-olds I teach are very unfamiliar with physical keyboards, mice and even touchpads. There's all sorts of elementary concepts that I have to specifically teach them, like:

  • how to anchor the position of a mouse with the fingers that touch the table so it doesn't move when you click it
  • the existence of different mouse buttons
  • the fact that you can lift your mouse or finger up and bring it down further away to give yourself more room
  • the idea that the meaningful area of the on-screen cursor is the tip of the arrow or finger and not the center
  • the role of the shift key and the need to hold it down while briefly pressing another key rather than pressing both at once
  • common keyboard shortcuts.
Meanwhile, my daughters, who are pretty computer savvy, have a hard time communicating on the phone because they do it so seldom. We actually have a landline in case we or a babysitter needs to call 911 and our cellphone isn't charged, and it's turned out to be a useful tool to teach technology to my kids! Since the design hasn't gotten much easier in two generations, they have to really adapt to its technological assumptions in a way that modern friendly app interfaces generally don't require. They love to call my wife and me on the phone randomly.

I've been seriously thinking about getting a typewriter!

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