Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fluency Milestone #4: GUI

In Chapert 2, Snyder lays out some of the basics of using a graphical user interface (GUI), like WindowsXP or Mac OSX. He tries to get across the difficult concept that a GUI is a set of metaphors. When someone who has never used a computer before (with low fluency) first looks at a Windows desktop, that person must first try to decipher the metaphor.
A "Desktop" was chosen by Xerox's PARC team because they were office workers. It fit their world-view. They saw file cabinets filled with files, and desks cluttered with tools and papers. The file-cabinet metaphor is even older... CP/M (created by Gary Kildall in 1973), the precursor to Microsoft DOS, also used files in folders (directories).

Aside: Bill Gates and Paul Allen purchased a variation of CP/M from Seattle programmer Tim Patterson in 1980 for less than $100,000. They renamed it MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM and became the richest men in the world. Patterson still owns a software development company and likes to drive race cars in rallies. He seems somewhat philosophical about things. I, for one, hope that Bill Gates remembers the Patterson family generously in his will.

But would other metaphors work better with non-office workers? At this point, I think, the GUI desktop has become the metaphor. The pointing arrow, the MS-Word documents (a piece of paper with a "W" on it means that I've typed something), the minimize/maximize/restore/close buttons... they no longer refer to real-world objects, but to themselves.
But what really happens when you click on a button? That's something that blew me away once I figured it out. I was teaching myself MS Access database programming. I looked carefully at what happened when I created a command button for a form and it suddenly hit me: the computer was watching for "events" and then executing commands that I had programmed. "On click" meant that the computer was just waiting there for me to click the mouse while the pointer was within the set of co-ordinates that corresponded to the picture of the button. I had told the database to run a macro when that happened. Suddenly, I knew that every other part of the Windows GUI was just a more complicated version of what I had just created.
This week, while helping a group of classmates with their database, I took the time out to explain this idea to them. I'm hoping that this may have been a "fluency milestone" for Ron and Emily.


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