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The “Bicycle for Our Minds” Needs Gears: Restrictive Interfaces

May 10 2012 – 01:06pm

Steve Jobs has famously described the computer as a bicycle for our minds. In this video, he eloquently describes exactly what he means by that.

Much like the bicycle allows us to produce an astonishing result – considering the energy put forth – so do computers. But, much like some of the best bicycles (unless, of course, you ask a hipster), the computer needs to have different gears to more effectively navigate the terrain of cognition.

These “gears” come in the form of the User Interface. Restrictive Interfaces help your user conquer big hills without getting tired.

Restrictive Interfaces at work

As part of my morning routine – unless I’m doing the 10-minute hack – I take my time waking up my brain and preparing it for the day’s work. I’ll meditate, and go for a workout, usually before checking my email at all.

If I’ve already considered my objectives for the day, on the walk home, I may check my email on my iPhone. Doing email on an iPhone or iPad is a pretty restricted experience, and that’s what can be great about it. It’s like riding a bicycle up a hill in a low gear: minimal effort, and you can’t get too far.

The peril of “Unrestricted” Interfaces

How many times have you done this? You get to work, check your email on your computer, and are overwhelmed by a flooded inbox. Panicking, you start checking those emails, one by one.

Then you start responding one by one. Without even being aware of it, you become mentally exhausted, then – to get some form of satisfaction – you start checking Facebook and Twitter every 5 minutes.

The next thing you know, you’ve been at work for two hours, you’re mentally exhausted, your mind is littered with pictures of kittens and babies, and you can’t quite think of what your top priority for the day should be. Plus, you’ve hardly dealt with that pile of email. You’ve been pedaling up a hill in high gear, and your “legs” are shot.

Why Restrictive Interfaces can be good

This doesn’t happen when you check your email on an iOS device. Relative to a desktop computer, they have what I would call a “Restrictive Interface.” It’s damn hard to do a lot of things on these devices. It’s hard to type, it’s hard to deal with file attachments in emails, and it’s hard to switch applications.

But, it’s easy to do the two most important tasks for email: deleting, and archiving, it’s moderately more difficult to type responses (and what responses you type will likely be shorter and more effective), and it’s damn near impossible to do any real “work.”

What I’m saying is, this is a good thing.

Restrictive Interfaces and Mind Management

It’s unintuitive, unexpected, and thus barely recognized – that productivity is less about time management than it is about mind management. Your mental energy is far more touchy than you think.

Being restricted enough to prevent yourself from going off on a mental tangent gives you a chance to mentally process the demands of the day. You can respond to those non-urgent emails later. If you need to respond to an email wrought with complex social and business dynamics, you can process that in the background – while you walk to work, for example.

Then, when you get to work, you can do some actual work – maybe a 10-minute hack – and then deal with some of those emails.

Creating Restrictive Interfaces

Being aware of the advantages of Restrictive Interfaces doesn’t only improve your productivity. If you’re involved at all with creating interactive applications, you can create different “gears” for your user.

There are plenty of examples of this in successful companies:

Interestingly, Twitter has recently been experimenting with an “expand” or “open” link on each tweet in the main timeline. While the elegance of the rest of their interface does a good job at helping the user manage his mind, this may be making the interface excessively busy. Users quickly discover that they can click on any tweet to expand it.

When has a Restrictive Interface helped you manage your mind?


If you’re interested in learning more about managing your own mind, or understanding the mind of your user, read Your Brain at Work.

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This post is filed under Creative Productivity, Design, Life Hacks.