Jakob Nielsen, Sun, and 3d interfaces

I like Jakob Nielsen. He was practically the lone voice of reason when Flash web sites, splash pages, and graphics-heavy design seemed poised to take over the Internet and render it useless.

But lately I’ve been ignoring his Alertbox columns. This quote from one of his latest really annoyed me:

“Judging by many of the messages we tested, email design is often a side effect of the software implementation and consists of copy written by the programmer late at night.”

Really? Late at night, eh? It’s bad enough that programmers are writing email copy, but when they do it late at night… Whew.

Meanwhile, some good UI observations on Sun’s Java Desktop from Buzz Andersen:

“I’m not formally trained in human/computer interaction, but to me it’s simply common sense that any UI design should be judged both on its ease-of-use and its heuristic value to the user. Put another way: a large part of the responsibility of any interface design is to stay out of the user’s way while helping him or her perform an action or get to a piece of information as quickly as possible. Usually, slavish emulation of the real world isn’t the best way to achieve this goal (otherwise, what’s the point of using computers at all?).”

And this is what I had to say in a comment on his post:

“Great post, Buzz. At least Sun correctly called it a prototype. (But then they also called it a ‘revolutionary evolution’, whatever that means.)

“And I agree with Jon — the mouse is not the right device to interact in 3d space anyway.

“Expose works so well because it actually solves a real problem (managing too many open windows). Sun appears to be reinventing things that already have good solutions (e.g. iTunes live search).”

Another comment on Buzz Andersen’s site connects this all back to Jakob Nielsen. In The Anti-Mac Interface, Nielsen and Don Gentner outline how tempting it can be to get lost in the metaphor-ness of interface design.

But the main layer of problems with Sun’s 3d experiment is something that Nielsen has hit upon many times, the most famous being his Flash 99% Bad article: that increasing eye-candy often decreases usability. I’m also reminded of the HotSauce experiment that R.V. Guha developed at Apple to show off MCF, a predecessor to RDF. In hindsight, is “flying” a web site really such a great idea?

Don’t answer that. I’ll leave the MCF trip down memory lane for another day.

Manton Reece @manton