• Undocumented Surface Pro 4 updates suddenly documented

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    I’ve given up trying to keep track of Surface Pro 4 updates. I figure the machine – like all Surface Pro’s before – is a buggy mess. Microsoft throws
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    • #133665

      Part of me is galled that so many people are buying machines that are so obviously buggy. Part of me is galled that Microsoft patches those machines — the firmware and drivers for heaven’s sake — without documenting them. All of me is galled that some companies, with data protection responsibilities, allow that to happen

      Nailed it! +1

      I’m reminded of the old adage: “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler!


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      • #134078

        Noel, software devs would do well to remember that adage, and to take it to heart.

        The desire to simplify the needlessly complex is a good and important motive, but those who write the user interfaces have to understand that some things are necessarily complex, and to try to simplify them does no one any good.

        The process of simplification is to cut away the unnecessary complexity while leaving the essence of whatever it is you’re working on.  When something is cut down to its essence, it’s maximally simple; to cut any further is to begin to strip it of its essence, and at that point, it begins to be not just simple, but simplistic.

        While I have little experience with Apple devices firsthand, I find the commentary by “Tog” (Bruce Tognazzini) to be very interesting.  He’s one of the old-time Apple product designers from way back (though no longer with Apple), and he has a lot to say about Apple’s excessive paring down of the UI of iDevices.  While he never mentions the simple vs. simplistic or strip to the essence/strip of the essence dichotomies that I use, he appears to be saying much the same thing.

        He writes that iDevices are geared not toward beginning users, but non-users.  The iDevices are designed to impress people seeing them demonstrated in an Apple store, where they look at the minimalistic, uncluttered displays and assume that this device must be incredibly easy to use.  Visible complexity is conflated with complexity of usage, and that’s often a mistake.

        In order to make the iDevice displays so simple-looking, Apple has to strip the time-tested UI standards well beyond the point of maximum simplicity, which generates the illusion of simplicity that, in use, is anything but.  That “visual clutter” they removed consists of UI elements that were useful in conveying information to the user, like how the scrollbars show the position in the document and the relative size of that document.  Or they would, anyway, if they didn’t hide a few seconds after a scroll is finished.  Now the information that used to be available at a glance requires invoking the scroll mechanism to “ask” the device to briefly show the scrollbars once more.

        The removal of the scrollbars is just one example among many.  Apple, according to Tog and his associates, has replaced many of the onscreen UI elements with gestures, and these gestures are not intuitive.  You simply have to memorize them and what they do in a given situation, since their functions are modal, not universal.

        Most of the super-beginner people that we tell just to get an iPad rather than deal with the complexity of a PC will never know these features exist; the iPad’s simplicity means that it’s easy to use at a superficial level, but there’s no “scent” of what kinds of things are possible.  There’s no visible clues to let the user know these features exist.  That would have been anathema to the original Mac design team (which Tog himself notes that he was not part of in the early days).

        A lot of these criticisms also tie in with why Windows 8 failed in the marketplace.  There were no cues to let the user get the “scent” that something is possible with the various edge swipes and corner clicks… especially to those using a mouse, such swipes were a foreign concept, and even to someone who knows the feature is there behind a UI-less swipe, the user is a lot less likely to make use of them than if there was some kind of signifier letting him know that something can be done here, that there’s an option of some sort.

        There’s this crazy idea that infects UI designers that things like menu bars are old-fashioned and not pretty enough for today’s UIs.  The thing is, though, that they are designed around the needs of people, and people have not changed since the 1980s.  The intuitive design and information scent trail concept that led to the pulldown menu bar hasn’t become obsolete because tech has become more capable– it’s just as important as ever, and as our hardware becomes capable of doing more and more stuff, the need to make that stuff discoverable is no less important than making the basic things discoverable was back before regular people even knew how to use a computer of any sort.

        There was a study referenced on The Reg a while back.  It revealed what many of us “intuitively” already knew, that “flat” design was slower and less intuitive than the skeuomorphic design that is now scorned by Apple and Microsoft alike.  The argument goes that since people know how to use computers now, there’s no more need to make UI elements mimic the appearance of real-world 3d objects to “teach” people how to use them.  We’re ready to take off the training wheels, so to speak.

        Those of us who favor skeuomorphic design (in moderation… Apple took it way too far in some cases, with calendar applications that are styled to look like they have dogeared paper and address books that appear to be leather bound) suggest that it’s not about training wheels, per se, but making UI elements instantly recognizable as actionable, active things.

        Whether we’re “tech native” or not, we’re all still descended from thousands of years of human beings who lived wholly in a world of 3d objects, and our brains are wired to instantly recognize things within that context.  It’s not that a flat UI can’t be understood; humans can learn and adapt very well, but to comprehend a flat UI takes more conscious processing power than a skeuomorphic one where a lot of that stuff can be offloaded so we can think about the task at hand.

        In other words, the UI elements are the “scent” that cues people in that something can be done, while skeuomorphics are a sign in the shape of an arrow that says, “This is an active element that does something.” In other words, it has more discoverability.

        The same is true of web sites that strip the underlines from hyperlinks in order to make the page “prettier.”  It’s not flat design, per se, but it’s part of the same trend of oversimplifying and stripping out information scent for the sake of aesthetics.  How do you know what’s a link and what isn’t?  On some pages, I’ve found that I tend to mouse around and see what turns the arrow into the finger pointer, indicating a link.  What if you are using a mobile device that doesn’t have hover capability?  I guess you just randomly stab at things and see if any of them do anything.

        That’s an example of something that’s been stripped not to its essence, but of its essence.

        UI design isn’t about making things new and exciting, like the model year changes of a car that are supposed to render last year’s model as hopelessly dated and anachronistic, even if it is mechanically the same.  UI design is (or should be) about recognizing the way that humans process information and respond to visual cues, and building to maximize usability.  Aesthetics take a back seat to usability in anything that’s meant to be used… the only time aesthetics are the main concern is in things whose only use is to be gazed upon and admired statically.

        And there you have another example of me writing a doctoral dissertation to say the same as what someone else said in a single sentence.

        Dell XPS 13/9310, i5-1135G7/16GB, KDE Neon
        XPG Xenia 15, i7-9750H/16GB & GTX1660ti, KDE Neon

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