Jef Raskin has always been passionate about ease of use. In the early days of Apple, he argued so forcefully that computers should be easy for ordinary people to use, the company gave him a project just to quiet him down. Dubbed “Macintosh” by Raskin, the project ultimately led to the computer we know and love today. Even after leaving Apple in 1982, Raskin continued to push for a friendlier user interface. His book, The Humane Interface, looks at ways to develop designs that more closely conform to the way humans work, rather than forcing people to follow what computers do.–DAVID READ
Q: Do you feel that your work on the Macintosh and The Humane Interface is a goal you’ve had your entire career?
A: Yes. I’ve been pursuing this from the sixties. I have an unusually eclectic background. I was an art professor, I’ve been a musician and a conductor, and I’ve done Ph.D. studies in music. I’m also lucky to have undergraduate degrees in physics and math. This is lucky because it put me in contact with a broader range of people. So, as an undergraduate student, I saw how people from the humanities and the fine arts struggled with how to use computers. I suddenly realized that it wasn’t because they were dumb. A lot of the engineers sort of looked down on them, but I had the fortune of being one of them as well. I’m a very thorough engineer. I’ve designed and built computers from the ground up. That’s how I was able to recognize that [Steve] Wozniak’s design was so great. On the other hand, I didn’t look down on the people in the humanities and arts. I felt that the problem was not them or their intelligence, it was the very bad way that the computer was interfaced with the human beings.
Q: When originally going around at Apple with your ideas, how did your colleagues respond?
A: [My ideas were] outside of the normal mind-set of people in the computer industry. Except at Xerox PARC, the idea of the important thing being how you use it was not part of the ethos. It was like being a visitor from an alien planet.
Q: So how did you get people to accept your ideas?
A: The same way I do things now. I just go around and keep saying it over and over again.
Q: There’s something to be said for force of will and determination.
A: That’s certainly one of the reasons I had to end up leaving Apple, because [Steve] Jobs found it very hard to have someone around who was as persistent as he was.
Q: You’ve said that the Macintosh project got accepted and cancelled three times at Apple.
A: I had to fight for it. Jobs kept on shooting it down. He said that the company didn’t have enough room for Lisa and “Raskin’s Stupid Macintosh project.”
Q: How did you convince him?
A: Well, what happened was that I didn’t convince him, really. He got thrown off the Lisa project, which was the company’s [Apple’s] big project, and this was pretty much the only place in the company that he could go. Whereupon he learned why Mac was so wonderful and he became a convert.
Q: Why did you leave Apple?
A: I could no longer honorably work for Steve Jobs. To continue working with him would have required me to acquiesce to design decisions that I disagreed with. You cannot go around in a corporation and say that the boss is wrong all the time. If you really feel that, and you can’t convince the boss otherwise, then the only honorable thing to do is leave. Otherwise you are a friction–sand in the works.
Q: Do you feel that there is a certain corporate inertia where, say at Apple, interface changes are made after the users log complaints and bug reports?
A: I can’t say what [Apple’s] internal procedures are, but what I do know is that they are not doing any innovative interface work and are limited to cosmetics mostly.
Q: Any thoughts on the Mac OS X interface?
A: Cosmetic changes. A few things have been cleaned up, a few things have been messed up, but it certainly doesn’t use any of the research that I’ve been doing. What’s worse is that it shows an ignorance of it.
Q: The research that you’ve been doing is based on other people’s research, correct?
A: Some of my own, but mostly other people’s.
Q: Who in the cognitive psychology field is doing cutting edge work in interface design?
A: That’s not the kind of research that they do. When you get my book, look at my references. My references are people like Bernard Baars, who was doing research into the cognitive conscious and the cognitive unconscious, and people like Elizabeth Loftus, who do work on absorbtion and retention. But, these people are not designing interfaces. Nobody’s using this work on interfaces yet.
Q: And that’s where you come in?
A: Yes… Another ambition of mine, and I hope that I’ve succeeded, is to turn this interface design world into much more of an empirical science. We’re talking about quantitative stuff, where you can go take measurements, plug in numbers, and find efficiencies. Claude Shannon and others showed that information theory was equivalent to thermodynamics. That’s what gave me the idea of being able to calculate the efficiency of an interface. And it is a formal efficiency, just like efficiencies of motors. If you’re a physicist [when you read The Humane Interface], you might say, “I’ve seen that equation before.” Again, I don’t explain that connection. But what I’m hoping is that occasionally someone who has a physics or information theory background might think, “Oh, I understand” in a deeper way. But people can just use the formulas, plug them into a calculator and do useful stuff. So you don’t have to know the physics that I’m alluding to. If I had put the physics in there, no one would have bought the book.
Q: In terms of interface efficiencies, you said that you could calculate them similarly to the efficiencies of motors. What does that mean?
A: That means that you can tell, without even testing it, whether there is room to improve an interface. And, that’s never been known before. I’m pleased about the Macintosh, but I’m equally pleased about having done the physics and theory to actually show that you can measure efficiency [in an interface]. It’s really funny. Alan Cooper in one of his books wrote that it’s not possible to measure the efficiency of an interface. You can’t quantify this. But it is possible to measure the efficiency of an interface. The core part is that its not some arbitrary scale like a sociologist might devise, this is information theory–this is something that has the strength of physics. Someone is not going to come along next year and say that this is not a measure of efficiency. It just is. This has the backing of hard science.
Q: How do you get people to embrace the goals of The Humane Interface ? Do you feel it will happen?
A: It’ll happen. I usually get my way eventually. As soon as some company embraces it well, and comes out with a better product, then the other companies will say, “Ooh look, they’re making money.” Little by little, projects that have some of my ideas get out, and some of them are going to be successful in the marketplace, and I keep up with the lectures and keep writing my books. I’m always looking for companies that would want me to come on board and create a product for them.
Q: Would you be averse if Apple asked you to help?
A: I would love to help Apple. I think that they are one of the few companies with the credibility to say, “Here, we have a new product and it’s easier to use than anything else.”
Q: Do you feel Mac OS X embodies ease of use?
A: No, not even close.
Q: So you’re talking about a revision of the whole product.
A: Of the software architecture. I love Apple’s products, I’m very worried about them going out of business, and I’d love to help them. I think that I could help put them on top again. I started the Macintosh project because I saw that we were at a dead end if we didn’t do something different. I think that Apple’s reaching a dead end again. Jobs can get only so far by making beautiful cases, which is all he knows how to do. If I had a message to send to Apple, I’d say, “You make beautiful boxes and put a beautiful appearance on the interfaces, and let me design something that will make people happier than they’ve ever been using computers. Something so efficient that enterprises will say, ‘Hey, if we buy these we’re going to save money because we’ll get so much productivity.'” That’s my message.