Under Control


Recently, I decided to administer a functional literacy test. The test was simple: take a favorite Windows application and tell me what all the icons mean. The icons are the droppings located at the top and sides of the Window display. In a surprise quiz, no one I tested could fully explain the command icons. Fascinating.

Perhaps a little history is in order. Way back, in the beginning, we depicted "things" on cave walls. The drawings represented animals and tools. Not much use for action verbs, but good enough to function as cue cards for a story teller. Verbiage began to take on talk-show characteristics.

From these original "icons," humans derived the more complicated icon-based written languages. Early Egyptian and Chinese writing converted icons into hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics are, by definition, hard to read, perhaps purposely so, since many of these systems of abstract images were meant to protect the prerogatives of the priesthoods of yore. Since the glyphs are not directly representative of some thing, translation is impossible, without a grounding in the culture of origin.

The temptation to use intuitively understandable representations as a substitute for natural language is strong. Icons---as opposed to glyphs---are easy-entry concepts. A human can assimilate several representative icons and immediately use them in simple applications. Computer icons first began appearing in the early Apple Macintosh. A wastebasket was for disposing items. A folder was for storing stuff in groups. On the caves of France, a drawing of a deer was a deer.

Examples of glyphs abound: the oil warning light on your car, most of the new Windows symbology. Hieroglyphics are impossible to read without some insight into the reasoning of the glyph designer. Only the designer knows for sure.

Moving along. Some cultures eventually decided to make use of a fixed number of symbols and string them together as a means of communication. Although the symbols are abstract, they're limited in complexity and number. We call this set of symbols---this acoustic representation of language---an alphabet.

Early string languages were batch-compiled. With most Romance languages, you had to wait until the end of the string expression and then figure it out. English and English like languages have the advantage of incremental compilation. We can construct the meaning as the sentence is received. The English language is widely used because of its intrinsic structure in which incrementally compiled strings can express things, actions and ideas. As usual, form follows function. English is not an easy-entry language, but once entered, an enrich all.

It's important to remember that written language is a system of interrelated symbols, not standalone hieroglyphics. Scholastic achievement scores have not materially changed since 1945, but the cost of maintaining those scores has quadrupled in real dollars. Why you ask? Well for one thing, the start of the cost increase coincided with the advent of "flash cards" for teaching reading. Flash cards treat each word as a glyph and not as a set of symbols. A child learns to read a limited number of symbols (words) very quickly. But as new words are encountered, the fledgling reader is stumped.

Why are we repeating the same mistake in the design of computer interactive displays? We like icons because they represent real objects. And there are not too many of them. We come to believe that since some are good, more is better, Glyphs derive from icons, and thus, abstract symbolizes arise. History repeats itself. For example, there are glyphs in Windows and Windows-like applications, and the libraries for CAD/CAM application packages. Even the new standards for communication use the library concepts.

What can we do? As users and buyers of packages, we should insist that we, the users, con converse with the computer, not just choose tasks. We want to define the tasks ourselves. Consider easy entry versus effectiveness. Both ways have uses, but we should not simply accept the status quo. Control displays need to have large, single-message displays, in the language of the operator. Maintenance people need clear instruction to service machines they may never have seen before. Use the history of language as a guide, and let's not repeat the same mistakes.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine November 1993 Page 62

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