The Perils of a Decent Human Interface

The Perils of a Decent Human Interface

By Jim Kent
Start Contributing editor
Reprinted without permission
from STart Magazine Volume 4 No 1 (August 1989)

My first commercial program, MicroIllustrator, was a paint system written in 6809 assembly language for the Tandy color computer. I was very pleased with myself when I managed to squeeze the flood fills, rectangles, circles, lines, text, brushes, patterns and other graphic elements into 3k of code in a months work. All done, I said to myself – except for the user interface.

The MicroIllustrator was not that much by today’s standards: no drop down menus or overlapping windows. But we did have a cursor following the mouse icons that would be highlighted when you clicked on them and a couple of different menu screens.

I was more than a little shocked when it took another 2 months of work and 6k of code to implement it.

Now I have a text editor that does block copies, a C compiler to figure out what to put in what register and hundreds of libraries of functions I’ve built up over the years. It’s not unusual to generate 3k of code a day. However one thing has remained constant: it always seems to take at least twice as long to build the interface as the rest of the program.

Pleasing All the People
Different people like to control their computers in different ways. Some people like the keyboard, some like to see their choices spelled out in drop down menus. Some people find drop downs too slow and would rather make a quick click somewhere on the screen and have something happen. So to keep everyone happy you need to have three ways to do everything.

Keyboard commands work best if they are easy to remember. Spelling out the keyboard equivalents next to their corresponding option on drop down menus certainly helps. It’s also good to make the key the same as the starting letter of the drop down command.

Sadly, nearly half the words in the English language start with S T R N or C. A Jack Powell, former Antic Software Product manager says “Thank god for Word Perfect’s Thesaurus !”. Unless a program is a word processor, it should not use the CONTROL, ALTERNATE or SHIFT keys as part of the keyboard commands; it’s hard to press ALT+P with one hand, and many people like to keep one hand on the mouse.

Drop down menus force you to spell out exactly what a command does in two words or less, and sometimes it’s very hard to come up with a meaningful name. My suggestion – at all costs avoid using words – get, put, push, pop and buffer. These words tend to mean more to a programmer than to someone who’s not, and also have different interpretations in computerese.

Selecting from a drop-down menu involves three steps :
Moving the mouse to the top of the screen.
Finding the drop down that contains the drop down you want.
Clicking the mouse over a rather narrow strip to select it.

If you can organize the drop-downs into logical groups and place the most commonly used items near the top or the bottom, the process goes faster.

The third component of a user interface is the panel menu – the area on the screen where a single mouse click tells the computer to do something.. I usually put these at the bottom of the screen out of respect for the Quantel Paintbox, a hardware/software combination used by production companies which has one of the nicest interfaces I’ve ever seen.

From the programming standpoint, panel menus are the most labor-intensive part of the user interface. I have a program that will generate drop-downs from a list of the text, but panel menus must be laid out by hand. Adding an extra feature at the last moment can force you to visually redesign the whole menu.

Panels offer the quickest selection, so you’d like to put as much as possible in them. But the bigger the panel is, the less room there is for text or picture the user would like to see. Remember the user has work to do. (Maybe MIDI programmers don’t have this problem). To save space lately I’ve been using both left and right mouse clicks over panel menus (e.g. left-click to select a color, right click to go to another menu)

Got to Admit it’s getting better
Object Orientated Programming Systems (OOPS) are much the rage these days, and there is a reason. The work with Smalltalk at Xerox PARC inspired GEM, the Macintosh display, Sun Windows and a host of other windowing systems. Lately I’ve had a chance to play with Smalltalk a bit, and I like its windowing system better than any of these offspring’s.

One idea Smalltalk uses that hasn’t made it into the mainstream yet is to start a program in the same place you left it. In other words, instead if having to remember what you called a file, hunt for the place you were working on, reset your tabs, choose the correct font etc., you simply run your text editor and you’re in the same place you were when you last quit the program.

Remember the Basics.
The two most important aspects of a friendly user interface are so obvious that they are overlooked in theoretical discussions. A program must not crash, and must be fast enough to keep up wit the user. There’s just no substitute for machine coding speed critical program sections and then letting a hundred beta testers put a program through it’s paces.

If your design is too complex or your program is too ambitious, you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to make your code fast and reliable. Keep it simple. Don’t try to include every feature your product manager and early users suggest, or even the ones you dream up yourself. It’s better to do a few things very well. After all, you can always write another program once this one is bulletproof and in shrink-wrap.

Jim Kent is a professional graphics programmer living in San Francisco. He wrote his first commercial programs, the MicroIllustrator for the Coco and Aegis Animator for the Amiga while employed at Island Graphics. Since then, Jim has started his own company and written Aegis Animator and Cyber Paint for the Atari ST and Zoetrope for the Amiga. He’s also had numerous programs published in Start, including Flicker (Summer 1987), the Audio Visual Sequencer (November 1988) and the computer animation programming language Pogo in this issue.

RU Healthy

Are You Healthy ?

Top 10 signs you need to go on a diet

1. When you wake up, the first thing you think of is “what’s for dinner?”
2. When you sit down, your ass spreads to cover the full width of the chair.
3. You have breasts and you’re a man.
4. That nice swishing sound when you walk is actually the inside of your legs rubbing together.
5. You threw out your Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazines and subscribed to Cuisine.
6. Someone gave you a card that read I’m in shape, round is a shape?
7. When you look down, you can’t see your feet without leaning forward.
8. People hide behind you at parties.
9. Staff at your local takeaway already have your order ready when you arrive.
10. People keep giving advice on dieting.

Sky Birds

All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders

This is the Sword and Laser Pick for March 2016.

Written by the editor-in-chief of

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.

It starts off OK, the story implies an interesting combination of magic and science to come. Once the two main characters become adults and live in the same city things come apart. All the magical realism and science in the first part of the story evaporates. By halfway through it all descends into some kind of boring romance. All the interesting stuff is gone. Hopefully the story will pick up and become interesting. But after a few chapters of the characters love life I lost interest and gave up.



Get Smart

Get Smart is a 2008 American adventure and action comedy film which was directed by Peter Segal, written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember and produced by Leonard B. Stern, who is also the original series’ producer. The film is based on Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s 1960s spy parody television series of the same name.

The film stars Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson and Alan Arkin, and co-stars Terence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner and James Caan. Bernie Kopell, who played Siegfried in the original series, also appeared in the film. The film centers on an analyst named Maxwell “Max” Smart (Carell) who dreams of becoming a real field agent and a better spy. The film was theatrically released on June 20, 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

For a ‘comedy’ it’s not that funny. Carell’s playing it as a straight man just doesn’t work. The best part-laughs are the pratfalls and visual humour. Towards the end there is some decent action and stunts. Very Average (3/5).

Goat Staring

The Men Who Stare at Goats (film)

A 2009 British-American war parody comedy film directed by Grant Heslov. It is a fictionalized version of Jon Ronson’s 2004 book of an investigation into attempts by the U.S. military to employ psychic powers as a weapon. The film stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, and was produced by Clooney’s and Heslov’s production company Smokehouse Pictures.

Based on the book by Jon Ronson.

Very strange film about a duo (Clooney & McGregor) who go on an Iraq war road trip. During the trip McGregor narrates, telling the story of the US army’s attempts to use psychic powers in warfare since the 1960’s. Very strange and a commentary on the weird things done in the military.

Lunar Chronicles

The Lunar Chronicles
Marissa Meyer


#1 Cinder
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

#2 Scarlet
Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison—even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive.

#3 Cress
Having risked everything to warn Cinder of Queen Levana’s evil plan, Cress has a slight problem. She’s been imprisoned on a satellite since childhood and has only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress a great hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

#4 Winter
Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana.

A science fiction re-telling of the Cinderella story. The first three books are fun and full of adventure. Unfortunately the final book is over 200,000 words and just too long with too many characters and plot lines. Recommended, but be ready for a slog through the final book.



Hunting Kakapo

Due to the imminent danger of extinction of the kakapo a group was recently organized to hunt the South Island for kakapo.

Because of the lack of success on previous occasions it was decided that if a range of people from different occupations were used, their different approaches to the same problem would bring better results than before. Sadly this was not so, the reasons for this are as follows.

The mathematicians threw out everything that did not resemble a kakapo, and caught whatever was left.

Professors attempted to prove the existence of at least one kakapo, and left the detection and capture to their graduate students.

Computer programmers used the following algorithm :
1. Go to Invercargill
2. Work northward by traversing east and west
3. During each traverse
Catch each animal seen
Compare to a known kakapo
Stop when match is found
Experienced programmers placed a kakapo at Nelson to ensure that the algorithm would end. Assembly programmers hunted in their hands and knees.

Engineers caught all flightless birds at random, and stopping when one of them was within 15% of the estimated weight of a kakapo.

Economists don’t hunt kakapo, but believe that if paid enough, they will hunt themselves.

Statisticians hunt the fist bird they see n times an call it a kakapo.

Consultants don’t hunt kakapo, but can be hired by the hour to advise those who do.

Politicians don’t hunt kakapo, but will share the kakapo with the people who voted for them (except West Coasters).

Lawyers don’t hunt kakapo, they just argued about who owned the droppings.

Software lawyers claimed they owned all the kakapo in New Zealand based on the look and feel of one bird dropping.

Senior managers set hunting policies on the assumption that kakapo were just green kiwi’s.

Inspectors spent all their time looking for mistakes everyone else made when packing the landrovers.

Sales people spent the time selling kakapo to McDonalds as a kangaroo substitute.

Software salesmen caught rabbits, painted them green and sold them as desktop kakapo.

All the Aucklanders that went got lost.
No Kakapo were found.

Armageddon Part 2

The Nerd Degree
Strangely this was omitted from the printed timetable.
This time with Jeff Clark, Brendan Bennetts (MC) a guy from the 501st and a woman who’s name I didn’t hear. A few more people this time, and a better show.

Animation Panel
With Mike McFarland, William Salyers and Paul Eiding
Turned out to be voice over artists. Since I didn’t know any of their works, wasn’t that interesting.

Fear Factor Contest
Consisted of contestants eating revolting foods. Not that amusing.

Kamehameha Contest
Apparently a screaming contest devised by Mike McFarland. Won by a woman due in part to the good nature and sportsmanship of her male finalists. Weird.

Ice Cream Eating Challenge
As it states on the tin. Three groups of people ‘compete’ by eating ice cream. The final group without using their hands.

Richard Dean Anderson (again)
Better today than yesterday, he battled through the usual predictable questions.

Christopher Judge
This time on his own. Again not much to say.

David Nykl (who?)
Appeared in Stargate Atlantis (2026) and Fringe (2010).

and finally…
Cosplay Cup presentation to the winners.

Purchased DVD of ‘The Wind Rises’ by Hayao Miyazaki.
A Japanese animated historical drama film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli. It was released by Toho on July 20, 2013 in Japan, and by Touchstone Pictures in North America on February 21, 2014. The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), designer of the Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, used by the Empire of Japan during World War II. The film is adapted from Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, which was in turn loosely based on the 1937 short story The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori. It was the final film directed by Miyazaki before his retirement in September 2013. The Wind Rises was the highest-grossing Japanese film in Japan in 2013 and received critical acclaim. It won and was nominated for several awards, including nominations for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year.


Armageddon Part 1

Held in Horncastle Arena

The Nerd Degree
The guys had only 30 minutes on the main stage. Present were Jeff Clark, Henri Nellis, Andrew Todd, Brendan Bennetts (MC) and a Erin Harrington. They did what they could with the low turnout on the stage, despite a large crown in the main arena. Given the background noise and interruptions the did OK, thanks to a few vocal female audience members.

Supernatural panel
With Corin Nemec and Ruth Connell. I haven’t seen this show and the actors were unknown to me. They were entertaining enough with stories from the show. It soon transpired that both played characters that had been killed off in earlier seasons.

Stargate SG.
Back to NZ again was Christopher Judge. He appears to have been in all the series but was not very forthcoming with information, leaving the others to do most of the talking. Corin stayed on as he was in Stargate from 2002-2004. Richard Dean Anderson appeared apparently drunk and looking the worst for wear. In a tee shirt and short longs, it looked like he was on holiday at a beach. With a black cap on most of the time, he looked like an unknown old guy. It wasn’t until the hat came off that the silver buzz-cut made him recognizable. About half way through he got his stuff together and went into the audience to interact.

Marina Sirtis
By far the best of the day. At 60 she is still looking sexy and had a lot to say. With a small starter question she could tell stories about her career. She is very wicked, funny and has probably been doing the conference circuit since star trek ended. Worth the ticket price for both days.