Tuesday, February 21, 2012

death of the mouse: film at 11

"It's Time to Exterminate the Mouse" reads Mat Honan's Gizmodo headline, the lead feature for the site. And at the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I think he has an extremely half-assed understanding of how people and computers interact. His whole tone is kinda provocative and juvenile, to the extent that the whole article feels like a troll. After a few potshots complaining about how 8-bit this hardware feels and how "anyone pushing them with new computers is selling crap" (NB: this point is stronger than it would be otherwise because he's tangentially talking about desktop systems, which are even more on the way out than mice..) he rhetorically asks:
When was the last time you really loved a mouse? When was the last time you were like, "damn, this is a great mouse and I enjoy using it?"
That's an easy one-- the last time I tried to do coding work on my laptop for a few hours. Going back to the mouse after a day on the touchpad is a blessed relief... stuck with just the touchpad for a day, an almost tangible pressure of annoyance builds and builds.

He then gives examples of a gesture I agree with the utility of: pinch to zoom is pretty decent and intutive. And I think inertial scrolling is probably a bit better than the scrollwheel, and definitely (usually) better than manipulating a page pointer by finger or mousepoint.

Then he says
Today at any given time we may be running 20 apps at once, with a dozen or more browser windows open, while trying to sort through more data in a few seconds than an early Cray supercomputer saw over the course of its lifetime. And yet we still use tools designed for a simpler time, with simpler needs.
Which is true, but how is that an argument for gestures etc over the mouse? The iPad and the iPhone are lovely because they do ONE thing at once. In fact, much of the physicality comes from the way your glass slab has temporarily been turned a unitasking device for that activity. You need a lot of real estate to pinch and slide and poke. 

It goes on...
Gesture-based computing gives us far more precision and control over the interface. We can manipulate not just points but entire screens. We can perform complex actions that once required keyboard shortcuts, with just our fingertips.
Precision? Really? And keyboard shortcuts are nerdy but they are full of precision and control. Plus, you can see easily written descriptions of what keyboard shortcut goes with what command...

He then points to the Kinect as REALLY ahead of the curve with this stuff. Admittedly I was an early adopter, but using the Kinect to navigate the most simple menus is a nightmare. Each game invents its own paradigm for "select this option" (some use a swipe, some use a hold, etc) and for "back" and "pause". With the right game, using your body as the controller is fun as heck, but that's because you have a great mapping to a physical activity. (Ironically, the one place he admits to the superiority of the mouse is for FPS games. I was going to argue that the other way games have better interfaces is with the two stick controller and all those buttons, but then again each game has its own buttons to learn, and it only really works well because of the physicality of it.)

Other advantages of the mouse: has this guy ever heard of "gorilla arm"? That's what your arm feels like after a few hours of poke, poke, poke at the screen. For people who work long hours in front of a computer, you need something that's not going to tire you out. (Not to mention all the greasy fingerprints...)

Similarly, Mouse use on screen pointers. These pointers are nice because they keep state on the screen even when you put your hand down for typing. This allows bimodal systems that react to your projected interest (for example, hover states on buttons as you mouse around.) in a different way from your project intent (some form of clicking). Very few gesture systems carry that, and with the rise of touch devices, the hover state might be on its way out. 

Also gestures tend to have poor discoverability. There are only a few universal moves (the zoom pinch, the swipe, the slide) and everything else varies greatly-- in fact, what a swipe "means" will vary from app to app. (Maybe if there was a universal "help I need the cheat sheet!" gesture?) So you get to a new app (or better yet to an old one you haven't used in a while) the answer to "how do I use this" might not be so clear.

Many gestures are residents of the universe of "moves the user can make unintentionally". Sometimes I mouse and shake a window on my Windows 7 machine, and suddenly all the other windows are minimized, including my chat windows and virtual post-its and things I like to keep around. And there's no real "Undo" for that, so I have to go and finds the things I wanted open. It's a clear violation of the Dao of UX, which is "a computer should always do that which surprises the user least."

So I might be sounding like that old "get off my lawn!" geezer. I might be underestimating the ability for gestures to standardize (they already are, like the "two finger scroll" on Macs) as well as having an exaggerated sense of the limitations of  touchpads, since I often use these nasty tiny PC things that lack both the 2-finger-scrolling and the generous dimensions of Apple's Magic Touchpad... Still, I think this article is a overly provocative and insufficiently thought out or balanced. On the other hand, it lets me (and the majority of the Gizmodo commenters by the look of it) feel as if they're rather smarter than the author.


  1. Kirk - I am gratified by your principled, if old-man-like, stand for the mouse and keyboard. Well said.

    Regarding accidental show-desktop actions, the show-desktop button (not really a button - the vertical bar typically on the right of the taskbar) is a toggle. If the gesture represents the same OS command as the show-desktop button, you can undo that show-desktop action, and return all of your minimized windows to their previous states.

  2. Oh, missed this feedback.
    A few points:
    1. huh, never noticed that button! Odd choice to not even have an abstract icon on it to indicate it, I thought it was just a bit of chrome.
    2. the "shake to clear screen" doesn't seem to use that to reverse it. In part it's a different gesture, because it keeps the current window open, just hide all others.
    3. I got used to hit win-m for minimize all, which seems like the same thing as win-d show desktop, but-- ta da-- isn't reversible, it's not a toggle. BOOO.
    4. What I really wish I had is some way of pinning certain windows so they tended to ignore "show desktop" -- specifically chat windows and the sticky notes app that I think came with Office...