Friday, July 8, 2011

Backdated UI Metaphors

In light of the full history of technology and invention, the digital environment has erupted in a comparative blink of an eye.  New things and ideas need to be named in order to convey their use, and usually the best method is to borrow a design or idea that lends meaning to the new doodad. 
There are plenty of layout/print terms that carry over (cut/paste, carbon copy, margins…), and even good old “bug” (booooring), but here are four metaphors that are pretty interesting to me.
Oh, on a semi-related note, did you know why stone columns have vertical fluting and flaring ornamentation at the top?  Because they are modeled after the bundles of reeds or sticks that used to hold up our roofs!  I love that kind of thing (I learned about that in The Fountainhead).  Anyways…


When I hear threshold it is usually in the context of determining a numerical value that serves as a dividing line between one status and another –usually in terms of visual settings based on business rules, a value of a slider control that triggers a change, etc.
The word’s original use is the name for the board or stone sill under a door that separates the interior from the outside.  It’s called that because it used to hold thresh.  Threshing a grain harvest is the process of separating the grain from the chaff.  Chaff was (and in some cases still is) pretty useful stuff for scattering around inside a house over dirt floors; like bedding in a barn, it provided a clean and comfortable barrier between you and the floor -easily collected and chucked out when it gets too dirty.  The threshold prevented that bedding from spilling out of the house.
From there, crossing over a threshold was a common term for passing from one environment to another.  Its application in the statistical sense is a natural progression and, likewise, a convenient UI design / application development metaphor.  Cool.


Until relatively recently, it was a terrifying word –ripe with doom for a mortgage holder.  It means to do nothing, and, in the financial realm, to do nothing essentially meant that you didn’t pay your due.  You defaulted; time to drum up some cardboard boxes and call your friend with a truck!
Now, though, it has a much more general application.  In a digital environment many assumptions have to be made about a user’s preferences (which is a dark art in itself) –and the initial settings for variables ought to reflect the general desire (or at least the least-bad setting) of the audience.  So now, the word default carries with it a matronly sense of comfort and safety.  The defaults know best; just stick with the default settings and you’ll be fine!  Oh no I’ve hosed it all; return to defaults!

Radio Button

Good old David Hammond pointed this one out to me.  Remember the radios that came in cars from the 80’s and older that had those analog push buttons that when poked heavily would slide the dial with a thwunk over to a pre-set station?  You could (can) only listen to one station at a time, so the action of pushing in one button mechanically forced the unselection of any other button (via a beautiful cat’s cradle of cords and levers).  It is a mechanical interface for mutually exclusive selection.  Now our cars’ digital radios still have those mutually exclusive pre-sets, but the push buttons don’t have the visceral feeling of one-at-a-timedness as the old timey radios.
So now, when an interface requires a user to select only one option from a set of candidates, they may be presented a set of “radio buttons” which very likely have nothing to do with a radio.


I hesitate including this one because it’s not as cool as the others.  But shoot.  Remember before bound pages were invented and documents were written on a long strip of parchment with a winding tube on each end that you would progressively roll through?  Me neither, but that method of perusing down (or across) a very long bank of text is a really nice metaphor for choosing a smaller viewable window’s worth of content from the larger whole in a digital display.  I think I even remember seeing scrollbar interfaces in the 90’s that incorporated cute parchment scroll elements into the design (for that matter, there was likely some green and purple marbling motifs in there as well).

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