Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

25 June 2010

On magic, or the appearance thereof

Clark @ 10:09 AM

Many years ago, I responded to a broad query by Jefferey Bonar asking what was the interface metaphor we really wanted.  I responded something to the effect of wanting ‘magic’.   This was in the early days of the desktop metaphor, and we were already looking to go beyond, and I was looking for the ultimate metaphor of control.

Now I didn’t mean magic in the ‘legerdemain’, sleight-of-hand type of thing, nor the magic I feel when sitting on the deck on a warm summer evening with my family, but instead the classic form with incantations, artifacts, etc. What I really wanted was to be empowered, and the best metaphor for total power I can imagine is having the ability to bring things into being, to have questions answered, to control the world with mere gestures and commands. And yet, even that has to have some structure.  As Clay Kallam wrote in a recent column comparing two recent fantasy books:

“The plot of both books relies heavily on the magic, but Coe is careful to explain how his works and its limitations and impact.  Drake seems to just call on some whenever it suits him, and nothing is explained.”

So, what I meant was that there was rigor underlying the metaphor of magic, rigor that roughly parallels the structures of programming languages.  For example, Rob Moser (my PhD student) prototyped a game for his thesis that taught programming via learning to cast magic spells in a fantasy world.  My vision was that in any place you wanted to, you could learn the underlying magic (language) to accomplish what you wanted, but if you didn’t, you’d be able to buy artifacts (e.g. wands, crystal balls, etc) that did specific things that you wanted without having to program.

The reason I mention this, before you think I’m going off with the fairies and unicorns, is that there are reasons to start thinking about magic.  As Arthur C. Clarke has said:

Any truly advanced technology is indistinguisable from magic.

And I really think we’re there. That is, our technology has advanced to the point that the technology is no longer a barrier.  We can truly bring any information, any person (at least virtually), anywhere we want.  We can augment our world with information to make us substantially more effective: we can talk through ‘mirrors’ (video portals) to others, actually seeing them; we can bring up ‘demons’ (agents) to go find information for us, we can send out commands to make things happen at a distance, we can unveil previously hidden information about the environment to start making conceptual links between there and our understanding to make us smarter.

There’s more required, such as Andi diSessa’s “incremental advantage”, and more accessible ways to specify our intentions, but with really powerful metaphors emerging (styles is something everyone should get their minds around), with gestural interfaces, and the ability to control games with our bodies, and with augmented reality aka Heads-Up Displays for civilians, we’ve got the tools.  What we need is the perspectives and the will.

This is important from the point of view of designing new solutions.  Years ago, when I taught interface design, I told my students that one of the pieces in their exploration of the design space should be to imagine what they would do when they had ‘magic’.  To be more specific, once you’ve gathered the requirements, before you see what others have done and start limiting yourself to pragmatics, imagine what you’d do with no limitations (ok, except mind-reading, I’m just not going there).  Given that among our cognitive architectural pre-dispositions is to prematurely converge on solutions, we need lateral input.  By exploring the possibilities space in a more unhampered way, we might come across a solution that’s inspired, not tired, and revolutionary, not evolutionary.

This, however, is not just interface design, but specifically learning and performance support design.  What would you do if you had magic to help meet your learning and performance needs?  Because you have it.  Really.

So think magically, not in the trivial sense, but in the sense that we have awesome powers at our command.  The limitations are no longer the technology, the limits are between our ears (and, occasionally, in our wallets or will).  Go forth and empower!


  1. Its not important to your main point about designing unhampered by the preconceptions and limitations of previous designs – with which I entirely agree – but I do recall one problem with using actual magic as an interface metaphor: nobody knows how it works.

    Or more precisely, half of people have no concept of that underlying structure to magic that is so crucial to using it as a metaphor, and the _other_ half all have very specific, very different, and very contradictory ideas of that structure. The metaphor is only useful when it has positive correspondences that you can draw on, and you’re aiming at a moving target. When my users were trapped in a game and the goal _was_ the game, I could just build a little mythology around my version of magic and encourage the players to learn it – its not like they had any choice if they wanted to accomplish the goal of playing the game.

    But to bring it back around to the wider sense of interface design, here your user / customer / apprentices _do_ often have a choice on how to solve their task. If I make it too difficult to learn – even if it is immensely more powerful – quite a few people are going to just drop my magic interface and go back to their old broken desktop. Its what they know. So you have the task not just of convincing your _designers_ to think outside the limits of familiar design, but your _users_ as well.

    Actually, having used that word, the model of magician’s apprentices does make for a nice segue to cognitive apprenticeship and collaborative learning, but I’m already rambling and should go back to work…

    Comment by Rob — 25 June 2010 @ 11:28 AM

  2. I’m not sure we’ve arrived yet, particularly as regards learning and performance support design. I still see too many users (designers and end-users) stumbling, fumbling and grumbling with the technology. The assumption that the limitations are “between our ears” rather than between those of technology designers, or are the limitations of the technology is one that often rubs my fur the wrong way. Have you noticed for example, how inefficiently most people use computers do everyday workplace computing 8 hours a day? How can that be? On the one hand, you’d think humans would have by now learned a few more of those sly keystrokes programmers know. On the other, you’d think some PT person in their multinational would have figured out a solution by now. Sigh…:)

    Comment by Suzanne Aurilio — 25 June 2010 @ 3:30 PM

  3. Rob, agreed, there’s a barrier, but that’s true for all computational environments. Though the GUI is now familiar, at one time it was quite confusing (drag a disk to the trash to eject it?). And we’re still learning about touchscreen affordances (cf the iPad). However, the HyperCard interface had that nice ‘incremental advantage’ (learn buttons, you could do some; learn fields, you could do more; same with backgrounds; then there was a bit of a step up for HyperTalk, but even that could be learned incrementally). Agreed, if the curve is too high, but start with widgets that as you explore and learn them, you get incrementally more power, but at the surface level they’re consistent with *a* metaphor.

    Suzanne, yes, we still badly use the affordances we have: we don’t communicate the designer’s model to the user, we are inconsistent, etc. While we have the capability, we don’t take sufficient and intelligent advantage of it. Just as we have bad elearning, we have bad software training too. As I think Negroponte said: “the future is here, it’s just not equitably distributed”.

    Comment by Clark — 28 June 2010 @ 8:30 AM

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