Direct and Indirect Interfaces
The iPhone is the first — and only? — direct interface that is both great and hugely successful. It’s direct in the sense that you touch things directly on the screen.
The first time I used an interface even remotely like that was the first time I ever sat in front of a computer, sometime in the ’70s — it was a PLATO system at the University of Delaware. (Elementary school field trip FTW.)
But it took a long time before the technology advanced to the point where direct interfaces could be a mass-market thing.
Even though we have this wonderful thing of touching directly on the screen, indirect interfaces are still everywhere. If you have a hardware keyboard connected to your iPad, you’re using an indirect interface with iOS.
And of course there’s the digital crown on the Apple Watch, the remote you use with your Apple TV — and the keyboard and mouse or trackpad you use with your Mac.
Indirect interfaces are part of the future of computing. The future is diverse and complex, and indirect interfaces are a necessary part of the future — because I’m not going to get up and touch my TV screen.
I remember when potato chips were potato chips. Then one day barbecue-flavored chips came along. Then sour cream and onion. Now you can get potato chips of all kinds! It’s crazy, but people have their favorites. The future is like potato chips.
The thing about the Mac is that it’s always used via indirect interface. When you have a hardware keyboard and a precision pointer that takes very little energy to move, then you can do things that would be non-ergonomic for a direct interface.
You can have giant monitors — and even multiple monitors — and whip that pointer from place to far-away place with little effort. You can make targets smaller, due to the precision, which means you can make information and controls quite a bit denser. You can put features in menubars, because menus are much easier to get to and navigate using an indirect pointer.
Though this kind of interface is roughly as old as those early touch-screen PLATO systems — and therefore mature, and therefore boring to a lot of people — there’s still so much to be said for the efficiency that it provides. You can see more, and do more, with less physical energy. For eight hours a day, five days a week — if not more, for some people — it matters.
There’s a cognitive cost, I think, but it’s paid up-front and then ingrained, and most of us have forgotten how we learned to use a Mac in the first place. (I was almost certainly older than you when I first started using a Mac, and I only kind-of remember.) (You also have to learn iOS, too.)
And many iPad users see the benefit of indirect interfaces — plenty of people ask their iPad app-makers to provide full control via keyboard. They want to be able to navigate everything without having to touch the screen. I get it! It totally makes sense. I want that too.
But here’s what I think: the future does include machines that are built, like the Mac, entirely around the idea of indirect interfaces. There will be enough people that value efficiency that this isn’t going to go away.
There are, of course, plenty of tasks that are truly best-suited for an iPhone or an iPad. Absolutely. But for many productivity tasks, the force-multiplication that an indirect interface provides makes a big difference to many people.
You may value other things. You may move between both worlds pretty easily. Different people like different kinds of potato chips — but sour cream and onion doesn’t have to disappear so that barbecue may thrive.