On Interfaces
6 min read

On Interfaces

Living with a roommate who got a graduate degree in computer science means we talk a lot about interfaces. I'm a coder; he's a researcher. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD after years of struggling with basic adulthood functioning; he is a well-adjusted, organized individual where everything in our apartment has its place and tasks get done in a timely manner.

You'd think this wouldn't work. Oftentimes, I wonder why he hasn't just run away screaming after watching me let the table - which was missing a screw for almost a month before a friend had mercy on me and fixed it - wiggle uncontrollably whenever someone sat at it.

No, he's stayed and he's been helping me with what he's been calling an "interface issue": the interfaces I need to get by are different than his because of the way I interact with the world and the way my brain is wired.

The patient way he's put tape on things to remind me to do repetitive tasks my brain just glosses over and encourages me to try different ways to track (and reward myself for) habits has truly helped bring me further along than I would've gotten on my own.

It also got me thinking about interfaces in general, because I'm a coder after all - and lately have been getting into design at the tech co-op where I'm a member.

In our apartment, we play a lot of retro videogames alongside newer ones. The newer ones we play are Hollow Knight, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Pokemon Arceus (all on the Switch). I primarily play the first two and watch my roommate play the third one.

The older ones we play range from Pokemon Yellow to Zelda Oracle of Seasons/Ages to GameCube games like Pikmin. (Of these, I only play Zelda.) I set up emulators on an old desktop computer to allow us access to many more as well.

Apart from nostalgia, what I am drawn to is the simplicity of the interfaces for the older games. I'm more likely to pick them up since it is very clear what I need to do when I'm in them. I have a very low threshold for frustration that exists apart from mental stimulation.

For example, in the old Gameboy Color Zelda games I mentioned, there's a helpful "A" and "B" near the items that are active to remind me which items are associated with which buttons. There's very little else on that part of the screen other than the number of hearts I have left. As a result, there's not much for my brain to keep track of and I can focus on moving through the game. To this day, these Zelda games are the only ones I've completed apart from Pokemon Silver and Gold.

A screen capture of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. The Maku tree is smiling and laughing. Link is surrounded by other characters in front of the tree. The simple topbar has a blue feather next to the "B" and a sword next to the "A". To the right of that are hearts to signify health and a number to signify how many gems you have.
I can't give enough hearts to this delightfully simple game.

Which brings me to the older Pokemon games. Watching my roommate play Pokemon Yellow alongside the newest Pokemon is quite the trip. In the new one, he has been learning to dodge attacks, have different modes of attacking - and holy shit, there's even a story line.

One day, when I came back from the library, he was speed clicking through all the dialogue, and when I asked why he was doing that, he said that he didn't care about the story at all and just wanted to move through the world, much like the way Pokemon Yellow does.

Arguably, the story line is a new level to the interface of the game that's just a pain to muddle through. I think of interfaces as a way to quantify the number and complexity of the steps I have to do to get The Thing done.

This story line added not only complexity - because you have to engage with the story line to open up new areas of the "open world" to interact with, and it often hasn't been clear when that needed to happen - but also it is just another step to complete and it isn't enjoyable. Add to the fact that the world, though beautifully rendered, is more difficult to move through (e.g., finding out the hard way that there's fall damage) and you suddenly have some big detractors for a game that is supposed to "improve on" the original games.

Pokemon Yellow, while you're required to talk to people and battle and go to gyms to progress through the game, is a pared down experience where there's a smaller set of tasks to focus on. There are only so many moves you can do with a Gameboy console, the world is 2D instead of 3D, there are less Pokemon, the list goes on. But, yet, it isn't less enjoyable for this - in part because it's very clear what you have to do most of the time so you can focus on the joy of moving through the game instead of getting frustrated by the lack of clarity around your goals.

It goes without saying that websites and physical spaces could learn a thing or two about this analogy - since, in attempt to be modern and catch the eyes of the easily bored in a society that requires regular stimulation - the complexity and number of steps to do something gets marred by the need for the shiny and "modern."

This definitely makes it more difficult with people who aren't neurotypical or who have more physical disabilities.

A couple months ago, I fell off the sidewalk and injured my back. Normally, to get to the top cabinet, I have to climb the countertop. There is absolutely no way I was going to be able to do that in my injured condition. Yet that's how a modern kitchen is built - utilizing tall cabinetry to allow better use of vertical space. If anyone in a wheelchair wanted to use these cabinets, they'd be stuck with the limited floor-level ones. Forget about the fact that there's no ramp up to the second floor of our apartment - or even to the entry level, which is flanked by small stairs in the front and the back.

I also tried to apply for a part-time job around the same time, using the University of Vermont's very clunky interface to put in my resume by painstakingly copying and pasting different parts of the one I had typed out, then clicking a button for each section I wanted to add, then adding in sections the job application had not asked for but the job system the university used required...

The resume and cover letter had already made me spend several of my spoons, and the mindless clicking and copy/pasting mixed with the slow-loading, tiny-typed page asking for unrelated information made me just give up. I emailed the department that was looking for the position, gave them my application, and left it at that. They never got back to me; I'm guessing because I couldn't make it through their system without dumping my entire drawer of spoons onto the floor.

These are just some smaller, personal examples. I only struggle with one disability - and one that is relatively easy to hack for short periods of intense focus, if needed.

I won't even go into how dealing with PCOS, which debilitates me mentally for a week and then physically the week after that almost every month, messes with my ability to work consistent hours. Yet, AFAB folx are unable to consider this a disability alone and often need another disease alongside PCOS to get federal assistance. (As a result, I frontload all of my work into two weeks of the month in preparation.)

Using interfaces as a lens, it becomes obvious very quickly that the way our world works - both in the physical and digital realms - is extremely ableist [a]. To those who've dealt with disabilities their whole lives, or has a loved one that struggles with the current societal interfaces, this is not news.

To tweak these interfaces isn't that difficult. One of my friends is an accessibility developer; their whole job is to make sure a website is usable by everyone at any point in time. There're a playbooks for websites; just as accessibility advocates have playbooks for public infrastructure.

We just need to be more adamant about using them - and understanding why people may struggle to use the interfaces that exist in their current state. Like many things in our current system, modifying bigger problems from the inside can be a herculean task, which is one of the many reasons this old system needs to be broken down and rebuilt to consider everybody. However, in the interim, building prototypes to show others how life could be with a simpler, more accessible interface seems like the best way to begin tackling the problem - and a step towards building dual power to invalidate the old way of doing things.

Never underestimate masking tape and a sharpie - or a nearly 20-year-old videogame.

Footnotes

[a] And, using the last example with PCOS, skewed towards people who don't do the childbearing - but you probably knew that already, given the number of states that seem to think uteri are under political control.