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July 29, 2008

Four-Dimensional User Experience

What, you might ask, is a four-dimensional user experience? Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. A four-dimensional user experience is one which incorporates time in its design (although to be honest I never quite got that "time is the fourth dimension" stuff).

Here's an example of how a UX can benefit from taking time into account. When I open a file in Microsoft Word, the ribbon opens to the "Home" ribbon tab. If I have a different ribbon tab open when I save the file, it doesn't remember that fact; it opens back up with the "Home" tab visible. So now let's say I am sitting in the "Reference" tab, and I minimize the app, and come back to it 6 hours later. Which tab should be up? I vote for the "Home" tab; the fact that I had the "Reference" tab open 6 hours ago is ancient news, it's highly unlikely that I'm going to be continuing to do what I was doing back then, and I should be presented with the default view of Office.

Similarly, if I choose "Save As..." and up pops the dialog box, that's great; but if I switch away from the app and come back the next day, do I really still remember or care about this? No, I don't. Dialog boxes should "expire" after a while (modal dialog boxes should be shot on sight, but that's another problem).

Here's another one. Let's say I open a file, and the app makes one of those automatic changes that it has to apologize for (like Excel 'fessing up that the reason your file is considered changed is because it redid something in an Excel 2003 file). Now, if I exit the app right away, it should probably warn me that I haven't saved it. But if I wait three days and then exit the app, do I really care anymore? The answer is no, I really don't--a change three days ago that I didn't even make really isn't worth worrying about, so the UI should be aware of this and not bother prompting me to save the file.

You get the idea. While others can worry about 3D user interfaces, you can jump right to 4D and impress all your friends! Remember, you heard it here first (unless you heard it somewhere else).

Posted by AdamBa at July 29, 2008 09:57 PM


This is not a comment on the main point of the post (whatever that is, since I don't use Office and don't understand the issue), but on the remark about time as the 4th dimension. There is so much mystification about that; maybe I can dispel some of it.

There are two related senses in which time is the 4th dimension. The first is the everyday one in which any measurable quantity can be seen as the fourth (or fifth, or sixth) dimension. If I say that I am located at latitude 45 30, longitude 73 35, altitude 15 meters about sea level, and temperature 22 C, that uses four numbers to specify my location and current temperature and temperature has become the fourth dimension. If I add that is 10:25 on July 30, 2008, that makes time the fifth dimension. If I further say that the humidity is 70%, that makes humidity the sixth. Note that not all of these are linear dimensions, in fact, only the time is, strictly speaking since the first three are actually spherical coordinates, temperature cannot go below -273.16 or so, humidity is restricted to a number between 0 and 1.

The more serious use of time as the fourth dimension is that the equations of general relativity, usually written as tensors, can easily be unwrapped into partial differential equations in four variables, three being spatial and the fourth being time. Thus the natural space for expressing general relativity (and special relatively too) is a four dimensional space in which the fourth coordinate is time. If temperature and humidity were involved in relativity, then we would have to speak of six dimensions instead.

The basic idea should be accessible to anyone who has had a course in linear algebra.

Posted by: marble chair at July 30, 2008 07:31 AM

No, no...I vote for the Reference tab. Just about any time that an app thinks it knows what I want better than I do, it will be wrong. If I minimized it with the Reference tab dominant, that's what I expect when I restore the window. If I left Word minimized that long, chances are good that I was interupted and I want the environment I left exactly as it was to help me pick up where I left off.

Posted by: Jeanie at July 30, 2008 10:23 AM

I never got the 4th dimension thing either, but I thought your post was right on the money. Next layer of intelligent applications...understanding context.

Posted by: jeremy at July 30, 2008 03:40 PM

This is the second greatest usability idea after the birth of Clippy, the animated office assistant. I'm sure people would love it just as much.
Of course this is when they figure out that this is feature and not office/windows/whatever crashing on them...

To be honest, something similar is already used in consumer electronic, menus expire and hide after some inactivity time. However I've always thought this is done for the people who get lost inside the menus and can't navigate outside...

Posted by: Ivan at August 2, 2008 06:26 PM

Wow. I STRONGLY disagree. I often leave things in a limbo state (like a saveAs dialog) to remind me where I was (after an interruption, sudden meeting, time to go home, etc). I DON'T want the computer making decisions for me after I have *explicitly* started something.

Posted by: Walrus at August 3, 2008 06:41 PM

This is one of those things that might help some people some of the time but would greatly annoy other people a lot of the time.

Personally, I hate the idea that my working environment would be changed while I'm away.

But at the same time I can accept it might in some limited and specific cases be "helpful", so I guess if it was an optional feature - off by default - I could live with it.

Posted by: Ed Guiness at August 15, 2008 03:36 AM