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A Light-Weight Critique of The Brain’s User Interface

In Product Management on September 10, 2002 at 5:23 pm

In the article and in the interview excerpts (from the now-defunct Feed site) Harlan Hugh makes the argument that an “associative interface” is the future of user interfaces for information management.

While I agree with his intent, and like the results (I’m a happy customer of The Brain), I believe there’s an interesting reduction that’s taking place – which may obscure both where The Brain fits and where user-interfaces could go.

Essentially I read The Brain as an analogy that since the brain functons (internally) via associations, then the best user interface will be based on some presentation that has associations as the primary (visual) metaphor. As I see it, The Brains associative interface is a successful realization of an analogy between how to manage information externally and how information is managed (allegedly) internally. This analogy is both a strength and weakness. To illustrate my concern, let me apply the same analogical structure managing food externally versus internally. Please note that I see this as a somewhat contrived example:

“Since the digestive system functions via breaking down food into component protiens, nutrients and minerals, then the best food will be based on some assembly of those components.”

While both analogies are true, an interesting question is what do they omit? In my food analogy, it’s the qualitative experience food that’s ommitted (e.g. taste, smell, appearance, etc.)

For information management, the question is harder – as there are likely multiple answers yet to be discovered. However, I think what’s ommitted includes task-oriented interfaces, linear oriented presentations (e.g. around time such as Scopeware ex. Mirrorworlds).

Another aspect to the question is to further explore the analogy, by considering how different brains process information differently. Jerry Michalski made an interesting point about individual differences and The Brain. Consider that if you accept a model that different people process sensory data differently (e.g. Neuro-Linguistic Programming), then The Brain may be a better fit for those people who have strengths in processing visual information, versus people who may have strengths in processing auditorially or kinesthetically. What types of interfaces would fit as well for them? Would the visual associations depicted in The Brain be as useful – or would it be more useful to augment it or depict it differently?

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