Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Death of the Desktop by Aza Raskin

Category: The Ajax Experience, UI, Usability

Notes form Aza Raskin’s presentation on Death of the Desktop.

Interface Concepts

  • cognetics = ergonomics of the brain
  • 7 +- 2 = amount of things we can keep in our brains
  • habituation – never use a warning when you mean undo
  • people will make mistakes despite any warnings, due to habit
  • hick’s and fitt’s law
  • hierarchical menus are evil
  • information efficency
  • there are quantitative measures of how good an interface is


  • interface – what you do with a thing and how it responds
  • to a user, the interface is the product
  • keep simple things simple
  • if you have trouble explaining your interface, your users will have trouble using it!
  • compare: setting a digital watch (hellish) versus setting an analog watch (simple)

Other Simple Things That Aren’t

  • cell phones – why can’t we take pics on a cell phone like we do with cameras
  • rounded corners
  • adding an entry to Google Calendar

The Problem: Applications

  • applications are like isolated cities
  • sepearte applications generate waste
  • for example, think of how many different spell checkers your typical win xp pc has
  • OLE and OpenDoc was an attempt at this problem, but don’t really work


  • start at the beginning
  • what does an interface do?
  • four things: create content, navigate content, select content, transform content
  • when designing an interface, return to the building blocks
  • example: why don’t all applications auto save?

Content is Everything

  • think of content and user first, and let the interface follow from that
  • this is why the desktop is doomed – no work gets down in the desktop

What Does the Desktop Do?

  • lets you get into a state where you can enter content
  • lets you categorize content
  • lets you navigate content

Language has untapped power

  • Aza did his entire presentation with Explorer closed by using Enso, the product his company is working on
  • looks similiar to Quicksilver, only with more power to integrate with the current app
  • Spotlight/Google Desktop Search
  • structured natural language is one possible way


  • icons are faster then words only in very limited cases
  • let search be search
  • let 2d content be 2d
  • why are large montiors more productive? because you can have everything open, and things don’t get hidden
  • let the user’s structure be

Let the Desktop Die

  • the toolkit straitjacket can hold us back
  • if a toolkit is created to make it easy to recreate the desktop on the web, thats what you’ll end up doing
  • why would you want to try and emulate the desktop on the web?
  • we have a unique opportunity at this point on the web – we must not return to the desktop
  • Alex (from Dojo) admits toolkit designers have a difficult time bridging the gap to interaction design – he wants to work with experts in the field – where are they?

Solutions – Services

  • mashups
  • let you stand on shoulders of giants
  • seperation of UI from backend
  • services are for end users and developers

Solutions – Universal Access Interface

  • bookmarks are not scalable
  • url bar doesn’t scale
  • need a fast, semantic method
  • example: ENSO
  • design for the Big Picture

Take Home

  • content is everything, given a good interface
  • language is power
  • services are good
  • unifcation

Further Reading

Posted by Rob Sanheim at 4:28 pm

4.2 rating from 52 votes


Comments feed TrackBack URI

Thank Goodness! So I’m not the only one who’s had a heck of a time getting my events onto the calendar. I was actually embarrassed that I couldn’t get it done right. I have *yet* to get a reminder for one of my appointments, too. Do I need to be looking at my calendar at the event time in order to get a reminder? How does that work?

On another note, how often do you alt+tab to switch between applications only to realize that the application is in the same window but a different tab? That is really annoying. I’ve not seen anyone talk about this yet, but before web apps take over the desktop, we’re going to need a solution.

Comment by Matt Nuzum — October 24, 2006

By far this was definitely my favorite session of the conference. There are more to come still of course, but I have a feeling none will feel as educational as this particular talk.

Great work Aza! I hope they have more sessions like this one in future shows.

Comment by Jesse Kuhnert — October 24, 2006

This was by far the most interesting session of the conference. Aza is definitly continuing his father’s great work. I wish the whole conference could have been as informative and influential as Aza’s. Not that the rest was sub par.

Comment by David Just — October 26, 2006

[…] Death of the Desktop by Aza Raskin […]

Pingback by 90 Percent of Everything » Blog Archive » Notes from ‘Death of the Desktop’ talk by Aza Raskin — October 26, 2006

I think a blanket statements like “the death of the desktop”, or “move the desktop to the web” are a little strong and smack of ignorance. What are you going to do if the network goes down?

Comment by Snootz — October 26, 2006

Snootz: Aza was talking about how we should move away from the desktop metaphor of UI, whether in an online app or a local one. So handling a network failure in an online app would probably be an implementation detail, but I’m guessing he would argue that your app should handle that error gracefully. So autosave info to prevent data loss, allow restore points, maybe even allow an offline mode to take over if network connectivity drops.

Comment by Rob Sanheim — October 26, 2006

Rob is exactly right. The Death of the Desktop refers not to the physical location of where your content is, but the death of the stagnant and harmful metaphors and mechanisms by which you manipulate your content on the desktop.

Comment by Aza — October 27, 2006

[…] every bit in blogs I could get. So here comes a small roundup of interesting posts. Reflecting on The Ajax ExperienceJSONRequest Proposal (also covered here)Death of the Desktop by Aza RaskinBrendan Eich: JavaScript 2and the Future of the WebHands on DWRDojo in Depth with Alex Russel (Introduction pdf, “Dojo in Depth”-Slides)Unobtrusive Ajax for Rails by Dan Webb (Low Pro, UJS4Rails) Microformats (hCard-Tool, Presentation-Slides) Also the guys from Ajaxian have put online their photos on Flickr. […]

Pingback by Fading Roses & Raging Viruses » The Ajax Experience — November 5, 2006

“if you have trouble explaining your interface, your users will have trouble using it!”

I would say:
If you have to explain your interface, your users will have trouble using it!

Comment by Rafael Nunes — May 11, 2007

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