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The First User Interface in the World
Chapter 6: Grasping for the controls of our spaceship
Hopefully this doesn’t result in too much hate mail, but my personal bias against black licorice comes through in this week’s chapter of User Zero. If you are a fan of black licorice, I apologize in advance. Joking aside, this is a fun one because I get to tell the little-known story of banana cloning and why a banana is natures greatest user interface. I hope you find it nourishing.
Stay creative. Your friend,
“I see God in the instruments and mechanisms that work reliably, more reliably than the limited sensory departments of the human mechanism.” — Buckminster Fuller
The first user interface most of us touched was our mother’s breast. The nine or so months prior to this tender moment were pure instinct. This is the first interaction where we could encounter user error. Do it wrong and mom will immediately let you know. Through trial-and-error, eventually most of us got the hang of it and our effort was rewarded with nourishment.
Here, in the first moments outside the womb, user zero learned an important lesson. In order to survive you need to try new things. When something doesn’t work, try something else. When you get it right, life is good.
Building on this lesson, we advanced from breastfeeding to the bottle. From the bottle to bananas. From fingers to forks. Roll, crawl, stand, walk, run. This is what real education looks like, simple experiments that lead to better and better ways of interacting with our environment.
Children naturally encounter the world as user zero. Everything is new, the limits are unknown, and we have endless energy that we joyfully invest in learning.
Our toys and games are tiny experiments that add depth to our understanding of the laws of our new world. We expand our vocabulary as we learn the interfaces of communication. We test different methods for persuading the people around us. We learn to express ourselves through humor, songs, drawings, and other creations. We build our identity through performance, debate, and rebellion. Finally, we reach school age and our thirst for experimentation is gradually educated out of us.
There was a period of time when our education was happening simultaneously along two tracks. On one track we had the thrill of being a kid, the hard-knocks education of the playground and the painful lessons of backyard bicycle ramps. The opacity of learning was transparent and natural. This didn’t feel like education but the lessons were real. Like cotton candy, some knowledge is light and fluffy, the type of learning that you don’t notice because it blissfully dissolves in your mouth.
Meanwhile, on the other track we were sitting in a classroom in itchy pants trying to learn the secret code that might save us from incurring the wrath of the taskmaster at the blackboard. They told us this is what education looked like and we were in no position to argue. The lessons were opaque because they were disconnected from natural experience. Like black licorice, some knowledge is carried in the pockets of grandpas who don’t understand why the kids don’t appreciate their lint-covered gifts.
Because the learning that comes from cotton candy is invisible and the learning that comes from black licorice has to be choked down, we end up with lifelong beliefs that learning is hard. We forget the joyful part, the effortless pleasure that comes from self-directed learning. Our understanding of our surroundings remains shallow, we barely understand the tools at our disposal beyond being able to identify which nipples to place our lips. Can we regain the sweet cotton candy type of learning we enjoyed as kids or are we stuck with black licorice? How do we learn? Answering this question requires us to examine things as if for the first time, as user zero, touching everything like newborns blindly seeking nourishment.
It probably struck you as odd that I described your mother’s breast as a user interface. We typically think of interfaces as buttons on screens, but everything we touch is an interface. A user interface is any surface that connects our brains to the outside world.
We are so comfortable with our tools that they’ve become nature to us. Once you have mastered something, the skill becomes invisible. After learning to ride our bikes, the user interface becomes invisible. The part of our brain that questions an object’s purpose goes dormant, freeing up space for more taxing mental activities, such as figuring out how many likes the photo you posted on Instagram has.
Much of our interactions with the world are automatic. We are on autopilot, rarely questioning the objects and routines that have been worn into our lives. This allows us to function at a high level because we can use our energy for important, specialized tasks that require focus and attention. I joke about Instagram, but our digital lives are deeply connected to our identities. Modern life is complex and we need shortcuts. The downside, however, is that a critical layer of the everyday world becomes invisible.
Normal people rarely use the phrase user interface because they don’t need to. It’s obvious. The user interface for a door is its handle. Plus, it is much more convenient to say “handle” than it is to say, “the door’s user interface” and you don’t sound like it is your first day on Earth. But remember, our aim is to unlock user zero, to see the world through new eyes. It starts by questioning the obvious.
How many invisible doors do you pass through every day? We don’t give doors a second thought unless the handle is poorly designed. When we yank the pull handle on a push door, we suddenly get jolted out of autopilot mode because we are forced to think about the previously invisible door. We quickly correct our mistake and hope nobody saw our embarrassingly unproductive yanking.
Life programs us to look for the clues that tell us how something works just by looking at it. When the observable clues of an object fail, we end up looking like idiots because we pull on doors that only open with a push. There is a word to describe the property of the door that lead you astray. It’s called an affordance. An affordance is the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used.
Affordances are typically human inventions, but not always. For example, the shade of a tree is an affordance that describes a cool place to escape the sun’s heat. A cave affords us shelter. The sound of flowing water is a clue that a stream is nearby. Smells give clues to potential food contained within the landscape. Our ability to identify affordances evolved from our most primitive survival instincts.
More often, nature prefers wicked, antagonistic designs. Thorns and thistles, poisonous berries and mushrooms, deserts and dunes, floods and famine, hail and hurricanes, cliffs and quick sand. You get the impression that usability wasn’t a top priority for the designer of the universe.
Occasionally, however, nature serves up something that seems designed specifically for humans like the banana. Because the banana is slightly curved and the size of your hand, you have a clue about how to use it. It is brightly colored, smells good, and is smooth to the touch. It is portable with a protective leathery purse that unzips to reveal the soft, delicious fruit inside. These affordances (color, shape, size, smell, texture, taste) make it one of the most well-designed objects we may ever encounter.
Who deserves credit for the perfect design of the banana? Do we give credit to God, the original author of the fruit? Do we credit evolution, the countless mutations that altered the banana in they centuries since Eden? You may be surprised to learn that humanity has made a bigger contribution to banana design than you realize.
The super market banana is a marvel of human engineering. Bananas are green when harvested, the yellow comes later through a carefully controlled ripening process that artificially extends the life of the fruit. We take for granted the perfect texture of the banana not realizing that man is responsible for its seedless consistency. The seeds of the banana were bread out of it long ago, neutering its ability to reproduce. Each plant starts as an offshoot, a genetically identical clone of its parent.
The downside of banana cloning is vulnerability to disease. It would only take a small fungus mutation to empty the world’s produce shelves of our favorite fruit. That’s what happened in the 1950s when Panama disease erupted. Back then, the main banana we ate were Gros Michel, a variety that is all but extinct today because of Panama disease. In preparation for the next banana extinction, scientists are monitoring and cultivating hundreds of new varieties. The banana of tomorrow may be being birthed today in a laboratory.
For those of us who didn’t know much about bananas, in four short paragraphs, user zero took an incredible journey. First, we appreciated the design of an ordinary object that we previously took for granted. Second, our perception of the banana’s origin changed, from a natural process attributed to a higher power to a process deeply reliant on human intervention. Finally, we learned how fragile banana production is and we imagined a banana-less future.
Don’t mistake the banana history lesson for trivia, however. The power of the story isn’t in documenting history, the point is to demonstrate the alternate realities hiding beneath the surface of ordinary objects we take for granted. That banana formula is going to repeat in the following chapters as we study the design of tools and objects we thought we understood. As we reverse-engineer them we’ll understand the human thought that lead to their creation. We will appreciate the fragility and danger inherent in items we previously appraised as safe and permanent.
While many people survive perfectly fine without this deeper understanding of tools, life is richer for everyone who can see the added layers of meaning that are invisible until you see them. Without this knowledge you can never reach your full potential because it is as if your mental toolboxes is partially empty.
Thanks for reading. I am releasing User Zero one chapter at a time on Substack for free to all subscribers. Physical copies are available from Amazon. Stay creative.
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