The Seven Laws of Interfaces

By James Caldwell | Published: August 1st, 2009

On July 28th I attended a talk given by Dr. Carlos Scolari about the Seven Laws of Interfaces. Carlos is a professor at the University of Vic in Spain. He is a media ecologist and a semiotician; he is a teacher and researcher and also holds a position at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. For the last few months he has been working at sLab as a visiting professor in Toronto.

As a request, Dr. Scolari was asked to give several lectures while in Toronto with interface being the topic of his last presentation. The topic of interface for Carlos is not just about computer interfaces but about the complete ecosystem of what an interface is. From his research he has developed seven laws that govern their existence:

  1. The interface is a metaphor.
  2. Interfaces are not transparent.
  3. Interfaces form an ecosystem.
  4. Interfaces don’t disappear, they transform.
  5. If an interface can’t do something, it will simulate it.
  6. Interfaces co-evolve with their users.
  7. Interfaces are subject to the laws of auto-organization.

It is interesting to note that dictionaries primarily define an interface as “a surface regarded as the common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases”. Of course in the 1960’s computer scientists claimed the word and redefined it as a device which allows the exchange of data between two different systems. Today this is regarded as a hardware definition but more recently with the explosion of computer software applications and their devices, designers have developed interface to mean the graphic control panel with which people use to interact with a hardware device. This evolution of meaning is interesting because it certainly substantiates Carlos’s sixth law of Interfaces.

The Laws
First Law: The interface is a metaphor.

We have already seen how the dictionary definitions of interface are evolving to include more diverse meaning. Perhaps time is shaping this definition but a specific definition does not yet exist. If anything it is actually expanding. One can use the term to make it applicable to almost anything they need.

Some say that the best interface is an intuitive one that does not need instructions; others believe more to the point that it is the place where the interaction occurs. Carlos believes that an interface functions as a membrane, an instrument, a conversation, and a place. He asserts that they are dynamic in the hands of the users and very much conversational interchanges. This is why he believes that they are not so much a membrane (as most designers and technologists would have you believe) but more comprehensive as a space “in which semiotic and cognitive processes take place.”

Second Law: Interfaces are not transparent.

This is probably my favourite law because it adds so much controversy for designers. Designers and researchers have insisted that the best interface is the one that disappears. Unfortunately I think this is a rather vague statement because there is a physical and intellectual side of this equation. A better definition would be that the physical interface is so intuitive that when the user is communicating within the interface, they can easily manipulate the device without being distracted by the learning curve of that interface. The end result is to focus on the task at hand and not think about the details of communicating.

But as Carlos points out “Even the simplest example of interaction – such as clicking on a button or transferring a document to the trash – hides an intricate network of semiotic negotiations and cognitive processes.” I think we generally forget this idea. Just ask yourself how many times you have used a gadget only to have to relearn its communication syntax.

Designers and usability experts know that users invariably find new ways of using the interfaces. The ‘usability expert’ (I use this term loosely) tends to try and govern the user’s experience but the user will end up interpreting it their way and coming up with new ways of frustrating the intended purpose. Carlos notes that these relationships between designer and user are ‘political’ and that interfaces are an ‘ideological extension of the vision of the designer’s world’ which allow users to perform certain tasks but not others that may be the wish of the user.

Third Law: Interfaces form an ecosystem.

Simply stated, when multiple technologies make contact with each other an interface is produced. This can happen between technology devices and between technology and human interaction. If there is no communication between two or more devices then the interface would be considered ‘latent’ until that time when an interaction restarts them.

This ecosystem is more of an evolutionary process. The method of communication within interfaces can easily be borrowed from one system to another without boundaries. In fact we tend to use older type interfaces with newer technologies before they develop their own interactive language. Carlos notes that many times interfaces do not find good ‘interlocutors for dialoguing’ and that sometimes there must be a confluence of technologies to birth one single interface. One of his examples was coming together of the original WYSIWYG Macintosh computer in 1984, the HP Laserjet and Adobe’s Postscript language. It was the union of these three technologies that revolutionized computing.

Fourth Law: Interfaces don’t disappear, they transform.

Touched on in the third law, Carlos states that “interfaces can rise from their ashes and reincarnate into new devices.” Interfaces are constantly adapting to different material formats in different technology devices. This law is historical in nature and I believe it is explained well in the following quote by Carlos Scolari: “In order to understand how an interface works and develops, first we must be archaeologists. A webpage interface can only be understood as a device that synthesizes six thousand years of writing technologies: it is read vertically like a papyrus, it organizes the text in columns and it employs the typography variations to communicate just like a Middle Age codex or a newspaper. From this perspective the World Wide Web could be considered a metamedium that concentrates and integrates many other interfaces and communication experiences.”

Obviously people create and employ new interactive strategies on a daily basis. But all these environments are created from our past history and knowledge. This adaptation is necessary to bridge the gap between old and new so that we as users may more easily understand what is required of us to use a new technology. That being said there are old interfaces that are latent for decades but under the right circumstances get readopted and adapted onto new devices. Of course this creates a generation of new users learning an old interface.

Fifth Law: If an interface can’t do something, it will simulate it.

Interfaces are restricted to their technological medium and they cannot always simulate the best ‘real world’ interaction, and when this happens, designers and engineers copy established protocols and processes to make the interaction seem more natural and relevant. For example we live in a physical three dimensional world but many times technology is presented to us in a two dimensional technology plane. So because we use paper, folders and buttons in our real world, designers tend to mimic them by creating three dimensional effects in our computer-restricted, two dimensional interface world. In this way users do not have to relearn a completely new visual vocabulary.

Carlos gives the following example: “A good example of interface simulation may be found in newspaper pages. In the last decade many printed publications have modified their graphic style to resemble that of web pages in order to adapt to a new generation of readers. In these publications the articles are shorter, small icons identify the different sections, there are more photos and infographics and the page explodes in a myriad of textual fragments that the reader must recompose like a puzzle. ‘Reading’ these publications is like navigating through a webpage. However, it is not an ‘interactive newspaper’: it’s just a traditional newspaper simulating a hypertextual environment.”

Sixth Law: Interfaces co-evolve with their users.

Users will apply their knowledge and understanding to any interface presented to them. Then they can choose to either accept the interface and perform interactions as the interface was designed to do, negate the interface and ‘under use’ its capabilities or lastly to ‘over use’ the interface and try to make the interface conform or take action on things that it was never designed to do.

The users therefore either cooperate, under use or exceed an interface’s abilities. Perhaps it is every designer’s dream that an interface gets used for its intended purpose but Carlos surmises that it is best when users push an interface to do things that it was never intended to do. When the interfaces are ‘pushed’ evolutions occur that allow for new devices, practices and metaphors that may not exist. The resulting evolutions may or may not be an intended consequence that the original creator thought of.

Seventh Law: Interfaces are subject to the laws of auto-organization.

This final law is interesting. Carlos believes that applying linear models to technology evolution is less effective or true than applying a networked model. He believes that applying a simple linear model generates a simplistic (and sometimes mythical) view of the present and future state of a technology. Whereas as the “socio-technical network is composed of technologies, subjects, grammars and interpretation processes” that allow us to look at the interactions between the various relationships. Where a linear viewpoint helps us navigate forward and backward in time (i.e. MS Word 1.0 -> 7.0) the networked viewpoint helps us understand the confluence of the users, technologies and various internal conversations.

New interchanges may produce new usages and allow the interface to grow with unintended reward and future purpose. Carlos terms this phenomenon, the interfaces state of ‘effervescence’. Obviously the viewpoint of interfaces as a network means that their environment can be quite complex and unpredictable but growth oriented.

Final Thoughts

After writing this article I performed an Internet search on interface laws. To be sure I found many references but Dr. Scolari’s seems to be the most comprehensive. I also wish to mention that it is refreshing to hear someone speak about interfaces as it relates to all things not just solely to the computer industry. In fact, Carlos gave his talk to a diverse audience that understood it as it related to their own fields of interest, just as I used his newspaper examples.

Carlos has written several books in Spanish but he is currently preparing his first book in English. I will update this article when his book is released – I for one, look forward to reading it.

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