Friday, August 15, 2008

BumpTop desktop criticism

There's a desktop project called BumpTop, which aims to make working with your computer files just like working at a real desk. The thought that this is the future of computing interfaces makes me cringe. It's almost as disturbing as the idea of shopping for real items by navigating a virtual avatar through a virtual shopping mall.

Now I'll give BumpTop some credit. It's a good example of how radically different our computing experience could be and how much potential there is for innovation. The project shows how the idea of physical position is significant in the human experience and can be used in user interfaces. Unfortunately, BumpTop just takes the physical analogy to literally to be useful.

One of the most obvious problems with BumpTop demo is the lack of labels. How do you know which PDF is which? If you make a little thumbnail of the content can you really identify the file when it's just a half-inch square on your screen? If you turn on filenames they'll overlap each other and be difficult to read. What if I want to look at additional information such as size, modification date, etc?

Next is physical usability issues. Is simulating a physical environment really that useful? If I toss a file onto a bunch of others do I really want it to move the files it impacted? How will BumpTop represent thousands of files in a directory, won't this be a big mess? How is rotation of icons useful, doesn't it just make my brain work harder to recognize them? What if I can't see something because it is obscured by other files?

I think the greatest and saddest irony of BumpTop is that it aims to improve the problems with the contemporary desktop by replacing it with something better but instead extends the central idea of the current desktop (physicality) to an even more frustrating and extent. Think about it this way:

Imagine we're all using BumpTop. Someone comes along and says "BumpTop is great and all, but it's got some problems: it's annoying when your files get rotated and I always accidentally bump files with each other and sometimes the 3D perspective prevents me from seeing files hidden behind large stacks". Then someone comes along with a solution: "Know what'd be great, a desktop where files can't rotate upside down, and they can't bump each other away, and instead of using stacks, we'll have folders that contain all of the files without obstructing other files on your desktop". Sounds a lot like what we've got doesn't it...

Now I do believe we should have better desktop UI's, but BumpTop just isn't it. I'll elaborate on what I think we should do in another post.