Human Versus Machine: The User-Systems Relationship

Lanter and Essinger write about the cutting edge of graphical user interface (GUI) design for GIS in 1991.  This was an era where the command prompt was still in vogue as a user interface and computer use was still unwieldy for many people.  It was also a time of change as more GUI-based software such as Microsoft Windows was gaining popularity.

Though the technology Lanter and Essinger profile has aged considerably since publication of this piece, the fundamental principles underpinning systems design and the system-user interface are still as relevant as ever. The authors discuss the need to move from a systems-centric design paradigm where operation of the software simply reflects the underlying algorithms and processes as directly as possible, to a user-centered one that gels with the user’s own mental models of the tasks they are doing.  When the latter succeeds, controls and functions are more intuitive for the user, who then does not need to be bogged down by excessive documentation or cryptic commands that only make sense to the developer.

An important point concerning the user-systems interface relationship is that it is a two-way relationship. Not only should system interface design be influenced by the user’s mental models, but those same mental models can be changed by interaction with the software, especially when the UI is set up in such a way to allow learning through exploration.  Most of my computer savviness stems from just being able to explore and mess around with things on Windows 95 and Macintosh machines starting at a young age.  My expertise with touchscreen devices, on the other hand, is far less developed. I am terrified of something happening to my Android phone, because I don’t know enough about the underlying system to be able to diagnose and solve problems as I can do with a more traditional PC environment—at 21 years old, I’m already set in my ways!

This has important implications for software developers who wish to advance human-computer interaction but find themselves faced with a generation of users most comfortable with the keyboard/mouse.  UI advances must be implemented and deployed incrementally so this cohort’s mental models have the opportunity to adjust. Unless a very ‘intuitive’ design is found, too-radical changes are bound to fail and be looked back on as being ahead of their time.


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