Where there is no Desktop

The Rowbory/Nigeria Family Blog

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Where there is no Desktop

Is the Desktop metaphor dead? The linked article suggests that touchy-feely tablets and phones are starting to sweep the desktop metaphor away. That’s certainly happening in part, but my own perspective is that in some parts of the world it’s never really been alive or helpful.

The point of the desktop metaphor, popularised by Apple and (to some extent) Microsoft was that it made something new seem familiar. Or to put it another way, it gave you new tools to do the same kind of things that you might want to do.

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Rewind now to about 12 years ago when I was in a reasonably remote part of northern Nigeria trying to teach basic computer skills to Bible translation team members. It gradually dawned on me that we were up against a major difficulty; the ‘desktop’ metaphor that had made computers accessible to ordinary people in the Western world was actually making it harder for my Nigerian colleagues.

Zuru 2001: basic computer skills in the language development and translation office

Zuru 2001: basic computer skills in the language development and translation office

The problem was that none of them had encountered ‘files’ or ‘folders’, ‘directories’. One or two had come across a typewriter before. They knew nothing of (written) reports. Their houses didn’t even generally have windows! They very rarely used buttons of any kind. Mice were familiar, but were for chasing away from the granary, not for moving around a table. They squeaked, didn’t click. Arrows were for hunting, not pointing. Not even fingers really were for pointing (chins were for pointing). They did know all about saving. Being ‘saved’ was certainly important in church and nothing to do with storing something important.

At the time, even as I struggled to explain first what a window was and why we use that term on a computer, I thought what we really need is to rethink the whole concept of Human Computer Interaction for different environments. But I was too busy working on a dictionary and other things to make any serious headway, except to note that on traditional Lelna compounds, there is a degree of organisation that might transfer to a computer system. And existing social differentiators and hierarchies too might prove helpful concepts.

TCNN 2012: basic computers for linguistics

TCNN 2012: basic computers for linguistics

Roll on 10 years and I find myself again teaching computers to people who have only just encountered them. Now a whole load more people are using computers and laptops are much more common across Nigeria. Mobile phones too are quite ubiquitous. But just as most of Africa has somehow skipped the landline age and leapt straight for mobile telecommunications, I have an inkling that the ‘desktop’ age may be blithely bypassed by many. Perhaps many Africans encountering technology for the first time will join the IT highway several junctions along from where I joined it.

So Apple’s had a GUI regime change – out with the old ‘tacky’ skeuomorphism, and in with flat solid shapes. If indeed that is where we are now – and Microsoft certainly think so with Windows 8 – then perhaps we won’t need to wrestle for much longer with an ill-fitting metaphor.

However, that’s not the full story. The fact is that user interfaces rely on some degree of familiarity. If skeuomorphic designs are being edged out now it doesn’t necessarily imply that they were a bad idea all along. How much do the new mobile-inspired UI designs rely on familiarity with older idioms, that is features of the desktop metaphor? Even when bold new strides are made, there must be some continuity for existing users to make the transition successfully, and some connection to the rest of their life for new users to be able to grasp a way of relating to computers.

Perhaps now we have a unique opportunity now to rethink user interface in culturally appropriate ways. As we have seen, new approaches to user interface design are being thrashed through right now. At the same time Africans are becoming familiar with various bits of mobile technology. (I say this based on living for much of the last 6 years in East and now West Africa.) In African cities and towns we see an interesting mishmash of ‘western’ and ‘traditional’ concepts and life. Not everyone lives in an agricultural world any more though still the majority of the Nigerian populace are linked to farming in some way. Perhaps the concepts I had considered before of ‘granaries’ for storing bags of grain as a metaphor for data storage will not work, or perhaps they will. We certainly need to abandon ridiculous archaisms such as a floppy disk icon representing ‘saving’.

This is not the end of the road but perhaps only the beginning. What I would love to see would be truly African approaches to using computers that no longer fall in line behind a mysterious and misunderstood western world. Perhaps I’m a bit of an unrealistic ideologue  but I would love to see people using computers without spending ages worrying about the intricacies of how to use and manage the computer itself, and focussing much more on the content they are actually manipulating and communicating.

Ideas welcome.


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