Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jef Raskin: The Black Sheep Hero of the Humane Interface

Brian Zaik

The Apple Macintosh. The reason why 1984 wasn’t like 1984. The first commercially successful personal computer to use the now customary mouse and graphical user interface (GUI). As much as Steve Jobs would like to call the Mac his ‘baby,’ he didn’t even come up with the name. That name owes itself to another person – a human interface designer who literally offended his thesis committee with the statement that “design and implementation philosophy…demanded generality and human usability over execution speed and efficiency.”

That man, Jef Raskin, laid the groundwork for what was to become one of the most important commercial products of the late twentieth century. Raskin was a catalyst for creating user-focused commercial computer experiences in an environment of rapid technological advancement, matching people with visionary ideas. Yet he opted to step away from the epicenter of the personal computing revolution in order to realize a more complete vision of his own computer user interface style. And this was when he cemented his own legacy. Raskin can rightfully claim to have ignited the Macintosh project, but his single greatest contribution is a body of best practices for the “humane interface,” an ideal that is perhaps more pertinent to our rapidly approaching future than to our past or present.

A Renaissance Man Ahead of His Time

Jef Raskin was born in New York City in 1943, and was classically trained in mathematics and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook (Bonnet 1). He developed an early love for music and art, which may have contributed to his strong sense for elegant yet exceedingly human software tools. He entered a Master’s program at Pennsylvania State University in computer science, before moving out to the West Coast to serve as an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.

At a time when many members of the burgeoning computer research field were talking about bytes and n-squared algorithmic complexity, Raskin broke the mold by focusing his college thesis on an application for graphics creation, which he dubbed the “Quick-Draw Graphics System” (Raskin “Articles” 3). The paper argued that computers should be completely graphic in nature to users, with various graphical fonts that appear on the screen. He advanced the notion that what the user sees on the screen should be what the user gets (the basis of ‘WYSIWYG’ editors). Raskin’s thesis was published in 1967, five years before Xerox PARC was formed. It’s easy to see why his ideas would have been so important way back then: they made the rare argument that human interface was more important than the efficient, compact design of code. Raskin was a true pioneer in human-computer interfaces, and many of his then groundbreaking ideas stuck with him for the rest of his life.

While still a student on the East Coast, Raskin clearly had an eye for computers that put people in charge. But it was when he moved to the West Coast that he found the people and project to really make his mark. Raskin met Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the two founders of Apple Computer, at the West Coast Computer Faire in 1977 (Bonnet 1). We wrote the Apple II BASIC Programming Manual and was hired by Apple in 1978 as the Manager of Publications (the 31st Apple employee).

Raskin’s influence on Apple’s early projects was felt in many areas, from software review processes to publications put out by the company and, later, to full-fledged product design and implementation. What’s interesting about Raskin at Apple is that he truly embodied the spirit of the corporate Renaissance Man – he could swiftly move from department to department and rely on his visionary philosophies of how computers should work to carry his insights to final implementation. Raskin’s desire to have a more-than-usable editor for writing documentation led to the first Apple text editor, which Raskin shaped into a “what you see is what you get” visual editor (Raskin “Articles” 4). His experiences with crashes and strange errors on the Apple II prompted him to start writing a series of long design memoranda to lobby for the simplification of computing beyond what the Apple II featured. He theorized that the personal computer could become a true consumer appliance, and that Apple could be at the forefront of a push to give “computers to the millions” (Raskin “Computers” 1). This intense and detailed vision ignited the personal computer revolution at Apple. Raskin demonstrated here that he could turn the fundamental concepts being developed at places like Xerox PARC into a marketable, “insanely great” consumer device.

Initiating the Macintosh Project

The commercial personal computer would never be the same. Raskin’s contributions at Apple came in the form of visionary, contagious ideas he developed and spread to those who joined the project. Raskin eventually came up with a rallying cry – the Macintosh (Mac, for short) project, which he named after his favorite type of apple (Raskin “Articles” 1). As he says, he came up with the Mac due to his belief “that to reach a larger marketplace, future computers had to be designed from the user interface out” (Bonnet 1). Before him, he claimed that Apple and most other companies in the space would “provide the latest and most powerful hardware, and let the users and third-party software vendors figure out how to make it usable.”

Raskin built intellectual mindshare at Apple for the project, recruiting from his own pool of colleagues and acquaintances to fill his burgeoning Mac team with highly talented individuals, such as Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, and Burrell Smith. Raskin’s approach demonstrated one thing right from the start: in an age of rapid technological innovation, bringing many smart people from disparate backgrounds under one roof with a vision can yield great results. In time, Mac team members would be found all over the computer technology industry, involving themselves with the open source Nautilus file manager (Hertzfeld, at Eazel in 1999), the user interface guidelines for the Macintosh and other platforms (Joanna Hoffman, from 1982 to the 1990’s), and NeXT Computer’s forerunners to the modern Mac OS X (George Crow and Bud Tribble, in the late 1980’s). Raskin was the catalyst for change in the consumer personal computing industry because he was the first motivator and father of the Mac project at Apple.

Between a Rock and Hard Place

Success with the first Mac was slow in coming, but the machine’s place in history as the first commercially viable personal computer for everyone is absolute. Yet Raskin’s mark on the final design was fleeting; two years before the Mac’s release, he left Apple (Raskin, Aza 1). The single biggest factor in this falling out appears to have been Steve Jobs himself, who became interested in the Mac project in 1981. Jobs wanted to use the graphical user interface that originated from Xerox PARC as the primary design paradigm for the Mac. Ironically, Raskin has credited himself for introducing Jobs and the rest of the team to the concepts from PARC, which were licensed by Apple for the Mac project. Raskin’s overall vision for the user interface was beaten down by Jobs, and he bowed out. Computing for millions did in fact become a reality, but not with the kind of interface that Raskin envisioned.

Raskin disagreed with PARC’s GUI paradigm in a number of important ways. First, he believed that the GUI needed to be as invisible as possible – it should melt away in order to leave the user focused on the task at hand (Raskin “Down” 1). Second, Raskin did not like the view of computer programs as componentized applications that have their own special interfaces for tasks. Rather, he proposed command sets that apply to specific types of user tasks. In his explosive article for Wired in 1993, Raskin reiterated this vision of computing, stating that “vendors should supply not applications, but command sets, interoperable with all other command sets that you purchase…mix and match” (Raskin “Down” 1). This is a fundamentally different paradigm from PARC’s methodology. Raskin also had a problem with the three-button mouse proposed by PARC – while he later admitted that a three-button mouse similar to the design of Apple’s more recent Mighty Mouse would be ideal, Raskin had drafted a design memo claiming that a one-button mouse “could do everything that PARC’s three-button mouse could do and with the same number or fewer user actions” (Raskin “Articles” 4). The first Mac’s one-button mouse actually adhered to this paradigm, despite Raskin’s many other unutilized ideas.

Going His Own Way

The black sheep of the Mac project left Apple to start Information Appliance, Inc., in 1982, chiefly to realize his vision of computing for the millions (Raskin, Aza 2). Raskin named the company after a term he coined in 1979 that would only become more important to his larger view of how interfaces should work. He points to the Canon Cat, an information appliance he designed for release in 1987, as one of his greatest achievements. The Cat was a dedicated word processing device intended by the marketing folks at Canon for secretaries and others who deal with text-based tasks every day, but its design included many user-centered ideas for data manipulation and user interface that are still fascinating today (Craig 2). Users could “leap” around text strings effortlessly and use commands from anywhere in the computer interface; many of these design elements seem to have been lifted straight from Raskin’s real vision for the Mac computer. Yet the Canon Cat never achieved commercial success, and thus its innovative interface is relatively unknown to most people outside of the computer industry (Craig 4). This is an unfortunate but nevertheless essential reminder that the most hospitable climates for user-centered design require commercial success to become accepted in general society.

Despite the Cat’s ultimate fate, Raskin pushed on to cement his philosophies in The Humane Interface, a book published in 2000. The text preserves many of his most researched and integral user interface design methods, such as the definition of a humane interface, one that is “responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties” (Raskin Humane 6). He cites numerous qualms with modern GUIs and fully realizes his vision for a new type of human-computer interface on paper: he discusses information appliances, “leaping” in text interfaces, and zooming user interfaces. Other influential HCI theorists, such as Donald Norman, have built on top of Raskin’s ideas and even refuted them. Norman has discussed the role of information appliances in modern HCI (Norman 2). While the interface described in The Humane Interface has not yet been realized, Raskin started a project named THE, The Humane Environment, in the early 21st century to finally implement his vision alongside other HCI colleagues. The project was renamed Archy, but had not yet been implemented by Raskin’s death later that year. Nonetheless, The Humane Interface has become required reading for HCI professionals and students around the world, and a revival seems likely.

A Hero for a New Age

Raskin’s magnum opus – computing for the millions using an information appliance architecture that made transparent the graphical user interface – was not realized in the Mac or the Canon Cat. While the first Mac introduced the rest of the world to computing and fathered a new era of computer platforms still used today, the core experience is divergent from Raskin and based off of the work of Xerox PARC. I would argue that the Mac of 1984 is so far from Raskin’s initial ideas that it is both inaccurate and unfair to claim the Mac to be his contribution to the development of HCI and computing. As we have already seen, Raskin existed in an environment and time in which many individuals collaborated to create the modern personal computing experience. He was the great Johnny Appleseed who brought together a handful of phenomenal people from engineering, design, cognitive science, and programming backgrounds, and planted in them the vision that personal computing should be focused squarely on the user, and how that user wants to use the machine.

Many may claim that the rocky history of Raskin’s alternative model for the computer user interface has tarnished his legacy. The Humane Environment, later known as Archy, was initiated in the early 21st century and has never been fully implemented. Despite the stated intentions of his son Aza Raskin and his close colleagues to continue the project following his death in 2005, the Archy project has fallen into the state of “vaporware.”

Raskin’s alternative has been studied by HCI students and companies for years, and I see a resurgence happening again. As Raskin wrote in Wired in 1993, “the first popularization of those ideas [was] on the Apple Macintosh in the 1980s, [and] we have had almost nothing really new in interface design” (Raskin “Down” 1). We are once again seeing the start of another period of massive change in computer technology with the Web browser. Browsers have become our portals within portals, and they are quickly usurping powers from their operating system parents. What’s more, Google made clear its intentions this past summer to launch an operating system centered around its Chrome browser (Pichai 1), and the Mozilla Foundation is well poised to follow Google’s lead. Is it surprising that Aza Raskin is now working for Mozilla to integrate his father’s humane interface vision with the Firefox browser?

Jef Raskin saw the future, even if he couldn’t quite build it. One can almost see Raskin’s information appliance staring back at us through the Web browser – a device that is primarily task-oriented and able to provide us with a growing number of commands to use the appliance in specific ways. The extensions in Firefox and other browsers seem to mimic those command sets, as they fluidly extend the amount of tasks we can complete on the Web. But the browser can become a big, confusing mess if designers don’t get it right – we need Raskin’s humane interface now more than ever. And that is why his true legacy will live on for years to come.

Works Cited

Bonnet, Ruth. "Biography: Jef Raskin." The Apple Museum. 2007. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.

Craig, David T. "Canon's Cat Computer: The Real Macintosh." Historically Brewed (1994). 28 June 1998. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.

Norman, Donald A. The invisible computer: why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1998. Print.

Pichai, Sundar. "Introducing the Google Chrome OS." The Official Google Blog. Google, Inc., 07 July 2009. Web. 22 Sept. 2009.

Raskin, Aza. "Jef Raskin." Jef Raskin. Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces, 3 May 2006. Web. 22 Sept. 2009.

Raskin, Jef. "Articles from Jef Raskin about the history of the Macintosh." Ed. Matt Mora. 1996. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.

Raskin, Jef. "Computers by the Millions." Apple Document 1979. Jef Raskin - Computers by the Millions. Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces, 2005. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.

Raskin, Jef. "Down With GUIs!" Wired. Dec. 1993. Web. 23 Sept. 2009.

Raskin, Jef. The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2000. Print.

No comments: