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User Evolution

Last updated on January 7, 2018

The 1980s and 90s saw great innovation in different areas of hypertext but the user was not ready – a simple icon-click interaction was all the general knowledge worker was up for.

Since then the computers have increased in power by orders of magnitude and the general knowledge worker now has super-computer level power by those decades’s standards, with high resolution displays and high bandwidth network connections.

Software however, is still developed primarily to impress during the first five minutes of unguided use, where the designers aim to ‘stay beginners ‘ (the current paradigm is that it must be ‘intuitive’, taking over from the label ‘ease-of-use’). While knowledge workers cheer on high performance users of games, graphs software and athletic equipment our culture still generally looks down on the knowledge worker who choose to become super-users of computers. This puts a hollow echo on Doug Engelbart’s question at the start of his great demo 50 years ago when he asked that if we, as intellectual workers, were given computers which were responsive all day, what value could we derive from them?

But that is only one side of the coin. A positive development over the last decade has been the pervasiveness of social media which has meant that even the average knowledge worker has become quite adept at what was only recently considered sophisticated computer use, carrying on multiple online dialogues, managing online identities and upload and sharing rich media, all the while being fast and efficient since this is an information interaction which is personal to them. I have experienced as a teacher at London College of Communication, this familiarity is reducing the ‘geeky’ image of computer use somewhat while it is common for the average student to be very family with the advanced interactions of the software which is available, no longer constrained to clicking on buttons on the screen but using keyboard shortcuts efficiently.

We are now at a point where the knowledge worker is ready for more powerful interactions with their information.

My own personal software development bears this out. I have developed (designed and project managed, not coded, I am not a programmer) a word processor for macOS which is available on the macOS App Store called Author (in reference to Doug Engelbart’s Augment) which features an interface which has no visible controls but still features sophisticated interactions. It is available on the App Store is being received well and is rated 4.7/5 (including reviews of early and incomplete versions): This software will be the basis for my proposed research project, which aims to find out how to stretch what is possible when interacting with digital information, primarily text (or ‘symbols’ in Doug Engelbart’s language).

To find out how powerful this interaction can be we need to experiment in many directions. I have chosen one specific direction: Non-linear interaction with text in an environment with full legacy document support.

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