Up is Down. Finally.

July 22, 2011 · Posted in culture · Comment 

Many years ago–not long after Macs were introduced–I was conducting a professional development workshop for K12 faculty and staff. The goal of the workshop was to explain the Mac’s mouse-and-windows interface. I suspect that many of you are too old to remember having to learn how to use a mouse as an adult, but if you do remember you’ll probably recall that it was not all that easy to master scrolling through a document window.

Two people in my group had particular problems using the mouse until one of them, in frustration, turned the mouse around so that the cable protruded from the bottom rather than the top, as designed. After that, each happily and productively used the mouse upside down.

I initially assumed it was some sort of perceptual problem, but the real cause was much simpler–each of the two folks having problems were pilots. (Alaska is full of them.) Pilots are used to navigating three-dimensional space with a stick. When you push the stick away from you (up, in the mouse metaphor), the aircraft dives. When you pull it towards you (down, to a mouse), the craft rises. They found it non-intuitive to push the mouse away to make something go up. Pushing away should make things go down, as happened in their world of flight.

It dawned on me then that the scrolling metaphor was somewhat backwards, at least logically. To move through a document from the top to the bottom, you had to pull down on the tab in the scroll bar or press the down arrow icon. (In-window scrolling and scroll wheels had not been introduced yet.) Pulling down made the document go up in the window. It was just the opposite of what you would do with a real document; if you wanted it to go up, you’d logically push it that way.

Now, with OSX 7 (Lion), Apple has finally corrected the metaphor. It started, of course, with the iPad. To scroll through a document in a touch environment, you push up to make it go up and down to make it go down. You interact with the document itself and not the window that the document is in. That’s the metaphor that Lion has adopted, and it makes perfect sense to me. Thinking document and not window, you push up to make it go up and down to make it go down.

I’l admit that it took me a while to get used to the new action. Years of habits are difficult to overcome. But the iPad–and now Lion–have forced us the re-imagine how to interact with an information appliance. Point-and-click is over, replaced with gestures that are much more intuitive if we can break our old habits. Up is finally down, and that’s the way it should be.