The Humane Interface

Book Cover

The Humane Interface is an essay by Jef Raskins, creator of the Macintosh, aiming to improve the human-machine interaction. The ~200 pages book covers the conventional graphical user interfaces and hardware devices. The book has a very nice format and for some reason, feels very comfortable when reading. The book contains a color-insert with some of the illustrations the author considered as the most important. Each chapter and section begins with a quote representing the topic. It does feel like an introduction, but I’m pretty sure quite a few people would be mad to read their words so far away from the original purpose. (Sorry, I actually had to write a few positive aspects)

We are oppressed by our electronic servants.
This book is dedicated to our liberation.

[ … Yeah … Right … ]

While the author is very respectable, definetly knows what he is writing about and explains his concepts and theories very well, the book leaves a bad feeling. The book is divided in eight chapters, including introduction and conclusion. The three first chapters all felt like an introduction, explaining basic concepts in a very theorical way. Chapter four gives the basics of UI evaluation and quantification. Chapter 5 and 6 explain theories about the ideal interfaces. Chapter seven seem to be everything that couldn’t fit elsewhere. There are also 2 appendix, which I havn’t read.

The rest of the review will detail the content of the book and explain why I feel the book will forever stay on a shelf, gathering dust.

The first chapter was interesting, as I was expecting to read an introduction. With only eight pages, a few examples of common bad interfaces in daily life are exposed and improvements are briefly explained. Chapter two is about human psychology nad the locus of attention. Basically, the chapter explains that you won’t notice something you’re not looking at and therefore, most of the current notification systems are bad.

The third chapter is a mix of a rant about modes in application and devices, such as the ever-hated CAPS-LOCK key, and quite a few other general topics. He demonstrates how frustrating modes can be, cover labels and how they should be formed to be meaningful and explain the basic “do and don’t” of interface design. These first chapters offered many insights about the considerations that have to be made during interface design and what the consequences are.

Chapter four covers quantification of an interface. It explains how to calculate the efficiency of the interface and how long it takes to operate. A great example is developed to show how a simple interface can be improved to increase the productivity. Even if quite a lot of maths is required, this chapter is probably the best one of the book as gives tools to improve user interfaces.

Chapter 5 and six cover the idea interfaces. I never really understood the distinction between both so I will write about both as a whole. It all begins with basic operations such as selection and why some operations should be globally available (such as spellcheck), it rapidly goes off topic and day-dream about the ideal interface where there are no separate applications and only commands are being added to the system, how the keyboards should be modified and basically, how the earth should invert it’s rotation. While a few elements do feel logic and interesting, most of it is only a waste of time for a normal reader. The worst part is that it actually covers half of the book. I did feel like throwing the book away and moving on, but I read till the end.

The seventh chapter felt like stepping back on earth with real world problems. None of the various topics covered in these 7 pages felt complete and the final words were actually more of a conclusion for the book. The conclusion itself (chapter 8, 2 pages) contained absolutly no information.

Overall, the book did give a few insights and probably made me a better interface designer, or at least made me have consideration over the disposition of the content. I did have a different look at the applications I have been using ever since. Does this make this book a good book? Parts of it are great, it’s just that most are just horrible. Some examples are simply useless, illustrations show absolutly nothing of interest and the author keeps going off topic. I actually had the feeling at many times that Jef was simply trying to fill in text to reach an acceptable amount of pages for a printed book. Multiple topics are repeated over and over again, causing extreme frustration.

I won’t give much more than 2 / 5 on this one. If you ever have enough time to waste to read it, I strongly recommand skipping chapter 5 and 6.

I feel better now.

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