Back to command languages

December 21, 2012

For a host of reasons I have to use the Microsoft Outlook web-mail-client. I’s like getting back to the command languages of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. When trying to send an email to some colleagues, I get the error message below. This is bad: What is actually meant by “No match?” …. but the worst thing is I can’t overrule the message and send the message at my own risk – it can’t be done. This reaction  violates good old adage in interaction design  from the 1970s: Error messages should be understandable and actionoriented and Let the the user beOutlook-1 in control!


Later I had this error message, a bit more friendly and telling … but I have in fact specified recipients!



“Google60”: distances and heroism in user interfaces

December 17, 2012

I recently came across “Google60”: an art project to explore distances and heroism in user interfaces. There is a Google search using punch cards, a running tape unit, an IBM 029 tape punch, a line printer at work, and an IBM 362 control panel. And with a bit of work you can punch your own punch card. Enjoy!

User-Unfriendliness of personal technologies

November 8, 2012

Historian of technology Joseph Corn has written a fine book called “User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers”. Corn analyses the user unfriendliness for early adopters of a range of personal technologies, primarily clocks, sewing machines, cars and computers as these are archetypical examples of personal technologies. His main claim is that none of these technologies subjected consumers to the hell like cars and computers.

I have written a paper about the book called “Of Cars, Computers and Hell: A Historical Perspective on User Unfriendliness of Personal Technologies” for the Danish HCI Symposium 2012. See abstract below and download the 4-page paper in pdf.

In today’s fascination by sleek and powerful computing technology it is tempting to forget the origin of the technology. Highly relevant to HCI in this regard is a recent book by historian of technology Joseph Corn “User Unfriendly: Consumer Struggles with Personal Technologies, from Clocks and Sewing Machines to Cars and Computers”. Corn analyses the user unfriendliness for early adopters of a range of personal technologies, primarily clocks, sewing machines, cars and computers as these are archetypical examples of personal technologies. His main claim is that none of these technologies subjected consumers to the hell like cars and computers. Based on a thorough analysis of contem-porary accounts by early adopters, Corn convincingly drives home his point. This paper presents and discusses Corn’s book and main line of argument. The purpose of the paper is to sensitize the HCI community to the historical perspective.

Saving keystrokes: history repeats itself

June 7, 2011

In the 1950’s when Office Automation took off, a major concern was to preserve the keystrokes. By then standardization in office equipment across manufacturers was largely absent. Harold S. Levin outlined the situation in his book “Office Work and Automation” (Wiley, 1956): ”At best, initial handling in today’s office is costly, time consuming, and subject to high error rates. It is an area in which we can anticipate a good measure of further technological progress.” He then addressed the origin of information: “The information … has a point of origin … information is ultimately recorded by key depressions on office machines.” He then aired the overriding concern: “It is common for these key strokes to be repeated many times during the handling of a single transaction … for example sales order, invoicing, payment, financial records.”

Alas, 55 years later the history repeats itself: The May 31 issue of the Danish “Financial Times” Børsen carries a story about the Danish IT company Boyum IT that markets a front-end to the widespread SAP package. The front end frees the users from keying the same information several times and in addition provides a more human interface.

Read more on Harold S. Levins book in the paper Jørgensen, Anker Helms (2007): A User Interface Issue in 1956: Preserve the Keystrokes in Usable Form. Proc. 7th Danish HCI Symposium, IT University of Copenhagen, Nov. 22, 2007, 19-20.

A quiz on User Interface History

March 22, 2011

You can find a 5-minute quiz called “Snippets of User Interface History” on

The quiz addresses various early facets of UI history (see details below). The quiz is intended to raise the interest in user interface history in particular and computer history in general.

The occasion was World Usability Day on Nov 9, 2010, where the organizers found that the historical aspect should be advanced.

The quiz is in Ignite-format, an up-and-coming format, where a presentation lasts exactly 5 minutes and encompasses exactly 20 slides, each shown for exactly 15 seconds. [It was quite a task to prepare the quiz under these constraints!]

The six snippets are
– Frans Alt 1951 an early quote on UIs (input/output organs)
– Office Automation concern: preserve keystrokes
– An early game development project
– Herbert A. Simon’s reflections on response times
– Altair 8800 interface: switches – no mouse, screen, keyboard – but nevertheless loved by the users
– My mother is a computer: meaningful?

Have a go!


Doug Engelbart turns 85

February 3, 2010

Matthias Mueller-Prove has made me aware that Doug Engelbart turned 85 on January 30 – see his celebration site. [For the uninitiated: Doug Engelbart  invented the computer mouse … and was the man behind the mother of all demos from 1968 – among other things]

How little they know …..

November 18, 2009

Yesterday I attended an excellent workshop in writing good applications for externally funded research projects af the IT University. Here a short abstract intended for the general public and the non-specialist reviewer is key. We did a useful exercise on this in pairs: First we told each other about a current research project in a few minutes, then we asked three questions about the projects, and finally we wrote a 10-15 line abstract about the project of our mate. Very good exercise, by the way. I told my mate about my project on the role of the IBM 3270 screen terminal (anno 1972) in the transistion from batch processing to online computer processing in the 1970s and 1980s. My mate was an extremely bright and knowledgeable computer scientist in his thirties. It turned out – quite late in the process – that he thought that batch processing was command-line-based interaction as known from DOS.

How little they know about the history of computing …. and therefore: How important it is we address this field!!

Hence I better explain what I’m talking about: Batch processing, dating back to the 1960s–1980s, is [typically] typing your program off-line on a deck of cards, handing the the deck in at a counter, waiting 2-8 hours while your program is being run on a huge, central mainframe computer, and picking up your print on a shelf near the counter. Online processing is having a display terminal, typically on your desk, connected to a central computer. You interact directly with the computer system with a response time of typically 1-10 seconds.

So thanks, mate!

window vs. windows

November 5, 2009

In may talk at the recent SHOT conference in Pittsburgh I argued that the user interface is a worthy object of historical inquiries. It is old, it is well known, it is widespread, and it carries some interesting stories that mirror the developments in society. In order to push my point forward I got the idea to search for window and for windows using Google Image.

What do you think the outcome is?

Do the searches deliver images of windows in houses?

Or do they deliver a certain Microsoft product?

Yes and no. window yields exclusively house-windows – one might thinks that window in plural yield even more house windows! No so. windows yield exclusively images associated with Microsoft Windows: about half are Windows brand icons while the other half are the Windows user interface – the well known screen image. I find that this modest informal investigation can be taken as a strong  indication of the strength of footprint of the user interface in our culture.

By the way, what do you think happens when you do a similar search for apple and apples ,-/

Google image search for window and windows – first four hits




Two local collections in Denmark

November 4, 2009

I’ve recently come across two local computer history collections in Denmark. The first collection is at SDU – Southern University of Denmark – where farsighted employees over the years have collected computers, hardware and other items. The collection encompasses the first IBM pc from 1981 (in working order!), several Apple Lisas (even one including the original cardboard box) – see the pics below – and several Next computers. The collection is described in an article (in Danish!) in the local newspaper Fyens Stifttidende.

The collection has been established by Einar Hougs, Hans Boye, and A. Ormicki. I became aware of the collection through mathematician Bjarne Toft who has strong interest in Piet Hein’s games. Unfortunately, SDU no longer wants to host the collection; some of the items may be taken over by Dansk Datahistorisk Forening.
The other collection is in CSC – where historically interested former employees Jens Peter Søltoft, Carsten Laugesen, and Flemming Svane-Petersen have established an archive. It is based on documents and items gathered over the years by themselves and other employees. So far the three “curators” are looking for a suitable way to index the collectibles.

SHOT 2009 in Pittsburgh

November 4, 2009

SHOT – an acronym for Society of the History of Technology – held its annual meeting in Pittsburg from Oct. 15-18. The last day was dedicated to the late professor of history at Princeton Mike Mahoney who passed away last year. In the last decades he has done a tremendous effort to increase the interest in history of computing. [His excellent papers can be downloaded from his webpage.]

A full day with four sessions focussing exclusively on history of computers was organized by SIGCIS [Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society]. In the first, the three distinguished historians Bill Aspray, University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Haigh, University of Milwaukee, and Gerard Alberts, University of Amsterdam addressed various aspects of Mahoney’s life and work.

Aspray presented a personal account of Mahoney – at times moving, at times stunning, at times humourous – while Haigh focussed on the central contributions of Mahoney. It was interesting to see that Haigh had selected the same three papers out of Mahoney’s 19 papers on computer history as I had in my presentation “User Interface History – a Mahoneyan Perspective”.  In addition, Haigh used several of the same citations as I, for example regarding the state-of-art in history of computing in 1988: “There historians stand before the daunting complexity of a subject that has grown exponentially in size and variety, looking not so much like an unchartered ocean as like a trackless jungle. We pace on the edge, pondering where to cut in.” This quote describes precisely my situation in user interface history in 2009!