Saturday, September 8, 2007

Form over Feature/Function

One of the extraordinary things about being in the Mac world is the different mindset that you see in the applications and the application community. Design philosophy not only matters, but people actually know what it means.

After years in the PC space, I had gotten used to the relentless focus on feature/function in the various applications. "Things" were defined by long lists of features and the details of the functions they supported.

If you're lucky, these feature/functions may be grouped by some metaphor. Alas, you usually had to deal with competing metaphors from the 5 different teams that worked on the app (or 100 teams if you're talking MS Office)

If you're extremely lucky, the application designer may have applied some goal-centric design to streamline the app.

More often than not, competitive pressures in the PC application space required developers to put an insanely number of features into the app to remain competitive with the other folks that had 1000s of features in their app.

With that grounding, I was overjoyed to stumble upon the game changing Quicksilver for OSX. Although I'm sure the iGeeks could describe what it is (I'm still an apprentice), I find it a very difficult application to describe.

Thankfully, the author gave a very interesting (and must see) tech talk at Google on the subject that is available for viewing. There are also some nice on line tutorials available, which may be a better place to start.

What I find most interesting about Quicksilver is the movement from applications from a collection of feature/function (spell check, email, etc.) to application as a metaphor (desktop, recycle bin, etc.) to application as conversation based on a grammar.

Rather than interacting with a program (feature function) or a proxy for a thing (metaphor), you are now have a conversation with the application using a simple grammar.

In the case of Quicksilver, start typing a noun (word, file name, application name, etc) and pick your "thing" from a list, then pick the verb for what you want done to that "thing". For example, "Birthday photos.jpg", "Email to (compose)", "mom".

In selecting your noun, you're invoking a desktop search engine that intelligently adapts to your search style based on what you select. For example, if you type "pd" and select "Parallels", next time that app will be at the top of the selection list as you type "pd".

Based on the type of noun, there are then a fixed set of verbs that are appropriate things to do with that noun. As you plug in additional capabilities, the list of verbs grows.

The neat thing is that working with Quicksilver feels a lot like working with a person for the first time. Early on you need to make extra effort to make sure you're on the same page when discussing things, but over time you move to a kind of short hand. Human/computer interaction as conversation.

The authors Google tech talk video briefly alludes to the author's work on Abracadabra for gestural control (non-verbal) as a complement to the text focus of Quicksilver, and speaks to the minimalist philosophy behind the app. By using hotkeys and gestures as short hand for "sentences" (for example, circle to select, and a loop to delete), you can get to the next level of transparency in communicating your intentions.

Definitely worth checking out.

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