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How it works: Inductive user interfaces

The text of this article is derived from an email response I sent a reader, and I thought it was valuable enough that a wider range of users would benefit from it. Many (Mac) people misunderstood the comments I made comparing Windows XP, Longhorn, and Mac OS X in my Longhorn FAQ. My aim wasn't to make a general comparison between the three OSes, but rather to focus on one specific area: While Apple can and should be credited with innovating the desktop operating system GUI we still use today, the company has done little over the years to dramatically improve this interface, though it has arguably made it more attractive, especially in OS X. My argument is that Microsoft, of all companies, has done far more innovative UI work, especially in the past eight years, working to extend to the standard desktop interface metaphor with new document-centric and task-centric user interfaces. Microsoft calls its task-centric work inductive UI. Here's the original email here, largely unedited. --Paul

An inductive, or task-based, user interface is one that is based on "tasks" rather than applications (as in OS X) or documents (as in Windows 95/Office 95, sort of; Microsoft backed off of this concept pretty quickly as the benefits of a task-oriented UI became more obvious).

Here's an example. Let's say you want to print a digital photo.

In OS X, generally, you would think "iPhoto," load it up, and look for the print option, which is pretty easy. This is an app-based approach. Like, I want to write a letter: I need Word.

In XP, you would navigate to the My Pictures folder, or wherever you store your photos, (which I find a bit technical, frankly; people aren't into file systems), find the photo you want to print, select the photo, and then view a list of tasks in the tasks pane. One is "Print this picture." Another is "Order prints online". If you select the former, you are presented with a wizard that walks you through the whole process: Selecting the printer and, if desired, the printer settings; selecting the photo layout to use (which is really cool for photos, especially if you have a photo printer with different photo paper sizes); and so on. Step-by-step.

Figure: XP's task-based approach to printing a photo.

In Longhorn, Microsoft is eliminating the first step. You don't worry about the file system. There is a special shell folder/collection/Library (whatever they decide to call it) in Longhorn that aggregates all of the photos on your system automatically, and instantly. You can filter the view by various criteria (who took the picture, when it was taken, what it is a picture of; in other words, metadata), making it very easy to find. After that, there is a similar task-based approach to XP for actually printing the picture.

In all three of these OSes, it's possible to use non-discoverable means to print that picture, or what you might call "power user" functionality. In XP or Longhorn (but not OS X, curiously), you could load up the Explorer, navigate to whatever folder, right-click, and select Print. This is nice when you know what you're doing, but you have to learn that somehow and there is nothing to help you get started (there's no reason to think you can even right-click on the Mac, actually). A task-based UI is good for two things: Getting any user started with an unfamiliar but common task (Printing a photo), after which they may choose other methods as their experience grows; and helping any user complete a task that is performed infrequently (Setting up an Internet connection).

Figure: Non-discoverable, right-click approach to printing a photo.

Way back in Windows 95, Microsoft introduced the first task-based UI metaphor in the ill-understood Start button. What this really is, is an obvious starting point ("CLICK HERE DUMMY"). In DOS, UNIX CLI, or in Mac OS X, you're staring at the screen when you first start, and there is no obvious "first thing to do." The system makes no effort at all to help you, leaving you to click on things until something happens (and why do some things in OS X require a single click [Dock items] while others require a double-click [alias on desktop]?). That's what I meant when I said OS X was a "classic" desktop OS. It has a GUI (heck, it has a very attractive GUI), but it literally does nothing to help you get started. It takes a very dated applications-based approach to handling tasks, too. You want to listen to music? Load iTunes first. You have to know which app to use before you can do anything. To an accomplished Mac user, this is second nature, and that's why so many people write me and wonder if I'm brain-damaged: After all, they already know how to use the system, so it must be intuitive. But it's not intuitive, and one thing people need to remember is that everything they do is hard until they learn how to do it: You get out of bed each day and walk to the bathroom without thinking about it. But it took you months to learn how to walk.

Microsoft has been working to add more task-based stuff in Windows over the years. The My Documents folder, the My Pictures folder, and the My Music folder were added in previous versions and placed right on the Start menu so you don't have to hunt for them; they're discoverable, in other words. In XP, it's even more task oriented thanks to the task panes (which were also added to Office XP and 2003, along with Smart Tags, both of which make it possible for users to more easily discover functionality that had been in the product all along, but was not discoverable. Hey, I'm more productive as a result). When you select a photo file in XP's Explorer, for example, the task pane changes to show options related to pictures. Select a music file, and the list changes to music tasks. And so on. It's intelligent.

The beauty of this approach--and the irony, when you consider the trouble Microsoft has gotten in for product bundling and the applause Apple has received for supposedly being better to its customers--is that any application--from any third party developer--can overtake the Microsoft defaults in the task panes. So, for example, if you install the RealONE media player and choose to make that your default media player, when you select a music file in Explorer and choose "Play song" in the task pane, it plays in RealONE and not in Windows Media Player. And third parties can extend the shell with their own options too, though curiously few do it (I guess they're too busy complaining how evil Microsoft is).

In short, in Windows XP to some extent and in Longhorn to a greater degree, people will be able to get work done without having to think about what application they need to use. And in Longhorn, they will stop having to worry about "where" that file is. It's a natural evolution of the honestly good UI work Microsoft has been doing for years, and not getting a lot of credit for. It's curious.

Now, because I present this information, I'm somehow labeled a Microsoft lover and/or an Apple basher. That's silly. But Apple has done very little to make its UI better per se, beyond simple enhancements to what is, again, a classic desktop OS. There's nothing wrong with that. Frankly, Apple's crowd is technical enough to deal with it. But saying that such an OS is "easier to use" or "more elegant" than Windows is wrong. Mac OS X is attractive, and arguably "better looking" than Windows XP, though that's a subjective declaration. But it is most certainly not "easier to use". And that's not "Apple bashing," it's just the way it is.

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