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Nielsen: beyond WYSIWYG

Nielsen’s latest alertbox is entitled “RIP WYSIWYG“, in which he argues that the graphical interface of modern operating systems (Mac OSX, Windows XP) has reached the end of its useful life.

His argument is based upon the difficulty of finding commands when you need to click, drag, point your way to them, via nested menus, toolbars etc. He mentions that MS Word has over 1500 commands and blames the menu system for the fact they’re seldom used (rather than the fact that most users don’t need or want the features – it’s all things to all people, hence the feature bloat).

Nielsen’s rather credulous support of the new interface paradigm for Microsoft office is surprising. The idea of ‘tabbed controls’ is fine, but in essence each tab seems to simply have a couple of rows of, ahem, toolbars… The graphics are new, but that’ll simply mean that every other software company will need to microsoftify their interface so that they don’t look totally yesterday. Is this really so new? It’s just another way to use up screen real estate. Clicking/burrowing may be reduced, but is there any evidence of productivity improvements or greater use of the feature set? We’ll see, since I’m sure that I’ll be using it in due course, alongside 95% of office workers…

That aside, this alertbox really chimed with me. His thoughts are always interesting, but sometimes there’s a moment when you realise that your own behaviour had already changed but that you hadn’t articulated it. This is one such case.

Over the last few years I’ve been living my life more and more in email, newsletters, online and cross platform. This has pushed me more and more towards simpler documents (text), writing within the email (rather than ‘please see the attached memo’… yuk), structuring meaning without using the display gloss of Word (learning from good text newsletters), having to ensure that what I write on my Mac is readable across kludgey corporate networks of various windows and exchange (text again)… These days I only ever open Word if I really, really need to do a large table! The added benefit is that the emails are much, much quicker to search than a disk full of binaries – especially since the necessary metadata (addressee, title, date etc) all help narrow the results.

My current love is for Structured Text which is used on Plone sites. We’ve been using one at work for a while (created by Mr Winter at Isotoma). It’s simple to mark up the text and for most documents the resulting text is clear, human-readable and portable. Plone then works its magic with a lovely style sheet that flatters your work 🙂

Wherever possible, therefore, I’m putting documents on the extranet in structured text and saving copies as text.

The next steps must be to wrap a text editor with a ‘preview’ capability (maybe a stylesheet preview? maybe using your computer’s web browser?). This would allow the approach to be used for non-web documents (while such things exist 😉 ). Think of it like authoring in Tek and then needing a compiler to see in HTML or PDF. The tek documents were a total nightmare to read (unless you are a code-monkey or used to hancoding in a markup language) and error-correction was a time-consuming and iterative process.

I’m hopeful that the moves towards “markdown” (simplified ‘markup’ languages) could be a further useful step – especially since they’re a great example of web services (or Web2.0 as we’re supposed to call it now). The whole ‘model-view-controller’ approach is also appropriate and interesting. There’s an online markdown type&compile demonstrator that’s worth playing with.

Roll on the day that all I need is email, a text processor and a web browser!