AskTog: Interaction Design Solutions for the Real World
Interaction Design Section   Living Section   About Bruce Tognazzini
NN/g Home > AskTog > ReaderMail > July, 1999 Ask Tog, July, 1999

Ask Tog Reader Mail

 Photoshop, the Dark Side
 Pilots and their Priesthood
 Mighty Mouse from Microsoft
 Ads—Can't live with them; can't get rid of them.
 Browsers=Nirvana—A difference of opinion

Photoshop, the Dark Side

From Mr. Scribblemonger's intro in your January issue: “Cyberstudio joins Visicalc and Photoshop in Tog’s pantheon of stellar applications.” I can’t imagine what you like about this application. I have three major gripes:

  1. The User Interface

    The first time I started this program (back around version 2), I thought, “ “what’s the big deal?” Its features and functions are almost impossible to discover. On first look it appears to be a new version of MacPaint, except there is no way to draw circles or squares—or much of anything. And its pathetic manual that doesn’t seem to cover a tenth of the program’s functionality simply serving to create a whole market for third-party (and of course Adobe) books, courses and tutorials.

    The functionality seems “patched together.” I can Save As JPEG, but I have to use an item in the “Export” submenu to save as GIF. The filters are simply listed in a huge, almost completely disorganized (or organized by manufacturer) list of submenus.

  2. The Feedback

    This is related to (1), but so brain-dead that it’s worth calling out. Almost every day I run into something in Photoshop that just doesn’t work. Why not? I have to dig through checkboxes and manuals (and the third-party books) to discover why a given command or option is currently disabled (or just doesn’t do anything).

  3. The Functionality

    The program stops working in indexed colour mode. Almost all of the features, including layers and filters, are simply disabled. Never mind that there’s a huge number of people who have to create graphics with restricted palettes (e.g. the “web-safe” palette—that’s another gripe for another letter). I suppose this is another “third party opportunity”—but why should I have to “debabelize” my graphics? Why can’t I see the end result of what I’m working on? Why do I have to resort to Studio/32, an ancient and unsupported program, to do this sort of basic work? In Studio/32, I can create a document and restrict it to a given set of colors. When it anti-aliases text or graphics, it only uses colors in the palette. In other words, ALL OF ITS FEATURES WORK REGARDLESS OF THE COLOUR DEPTH OF THE DOCUMENT. This is circa 1990 software, no-brainer functionality.

We seem to be stuck with Photoshop. It killed off almost every other painting program, even though it’s really a photo retouching tool. Why do we stand for it?

Please reconsider,

Chris Ryan
Senior Human Interface Engineer

Chris, while I must agree with your conclusion, I'm not sure you laid out the full case. Let's see what we can do to augment it:

  1. The User Interface

    On this one, you are right, except for the GIF thing. Actually, there is a method (too complex to go into here) by which you can (through a series of extreme alterations to the document) twist the document around to the point where you can save it as a GIF. Then, you get to go though the same series of changes in reverse to be able to (effectively) work on it some more.

    You can do the same thing to Save As a document as a jpeg, but you stand a very high chance of permanently losing all your layers in the process. Very convenient for those with nothing better to do than to reconstruct a 20-layer document.

    And how about those 100 layer documents? Do you have a few of those? I've taken to creating layers with the label, "-----------------------", just to act as separators.

    And what's with these layers, anyway? Those of us who have used real drawing programs are familiar with the concept of layers—you might use two or three of them in a really complex drawing—but 100 of them? Or 150 of them?

    There's this alternate concept that's been around since around 1965 called "objects." Adobe would be well-advised to check it out—take a peek at MacDraw or Visio. Objects would stop the insanity. They could be grouped, so you wouldn't end up with a linear list of objects that looks like a phone book. They could be touched, unlike the current photoshop layers, which demand you click just exactly on an active pixel, not one pixel to the left or right (try hitting a period character on a text layer some time).

  2. The Feedback

    I must defend Adobe against your charge that it is all but impossible to figure out why some feature is currently disabled. This is Apple's fault. I proposed fourteen years ago that users be able to click on disabled items and have revealed to them why the item was disabled along with instructions as to how they could go about enabling it. Unfortunately, it never got into the Macintosh system, so there was nothing there for Microsoft to copy when pirating the design for Windows.

    Not that Adobe is blameless, of course, since they have striven mightily to extend Apple's lack of feedback. My personal favorite is the invisible selection. You select an object—I mean, portion of a layer—outlining it in the crawling ants, then move it to where you want it. Then you select "hide edges" or press Control/Command-H, so you can see what you're doing without all those ants. Then, you go about your business manipulating the image. All this works fine. It's when you go to your next assigned task, having forgotten that there is an invisible selection lurking on the screen that the fun begins. Whatever you are trying to do just simply doesn't work, and no explanation is to be found anywhere.

    Hide edges is useful and important functionality, but it desperately needs fixing.

  3. The Functionality

    Again, Chris, I must fault you for holding back. The functionality of Photoshop is, in many areas, purely scandalous.

    Let's begin with the magic wand. It hasn't been improved in years. Give us greater control than just simple "tolerance." We're looking at the drawing; you're not. Let us tell you a bit about what we're trying to capture. Does it stand out because of its hue? Its value? Its saturation? Let us slide little sliders to tell you which one. If it is hue, let us slide little sliders to tell you what hue, etc. And let's do it "live." Let me click on an object, then play with the controls until it comes out right.

    And let me start by setting an "area of influence," so that when I choose "select similar," it selects similar near the object I'm trying to capture, not in some unnoticed part of the page.

    Then there's the rich set of drawing tools. The paintbrush that can destroy any image in less than one second. The square tool, the circle tool—oh, sorry, it doesn't have anything that sophisticated. Apparently Photoshop users are incapable of drawing anything that can't be easily worked up on an Etch-A-Sketch. Then there are all those marvelous tools, such as the eraser, that don't scale at all as you zoom in, so when you attempt to erase a single pixel, it takes out a chunk the size of New Jersey (and a round, antialiased chunk at that.

I hold Photoshop in a special place because it is a powerful, functional tool. But I fully share Chris's frustration in facing its crude and demanding interface every day.

Photoshop feels Frankensteinian, as though Adobe long since lost all control and has been simply running in front of the beast, doing whatever they can to give users some access, no matter how ridiculous, to its expanding powers. It's about time someone took charge again

The Photoshop team needs to sit down with all those dozens of books that have been written to help people get their work done in spite of this tool, and they need to carefully analyze what things are driving their users crazy. Chris mentioned that Photoshop offers no way to draw squares, but it does: All you have to do stretch out a selection rectangle, select Stroke from the Edit menu, enter how wide you want your rectangle and a few other assorted details to complex to go into here and, Voilá!, you have a square. Why do I know this and Chris doesn't? Because I have a friend who graduated from design school, and she knows what Stroke means. (I didn't dare select it, for fear I would no longer be able to draw with the left side of my body.)

I suppose some marketing person somewhere decided many years ago to have Photoshop remain "crippleware" in this area so they could be sure to sell more copies of Illustrator. But normal humans can't use Illustrator. I've bought three versions and made three separate attempts to learn it. I just don't get Illustrator at all, so if it doesn't exist in Photoshop, it doesn't exist.

Photoshop's making it impossible for anyone but a design school graduate to draw a simple square is, indeed, scandalous. It is time for Adobe to clean up its act.

Pilots and their Priesthood

Sorry I have to disagree with you in your article, "When Interfaces Kill: What Really Happened to John Denver," when it comes to pilots’ “macho attitude.”

It is pretty self-evident that pilot mental attitude to safety is the single most important factor in staying alive. I don’t think anybody disputes this.

But I think the “macho” comments are somewhat tarring everybody with the same brush, which is not correct. True there are Richard Craniums (dickheads) flying about. But I would say the average General Aviation [private] pilot is honest in trying to be the best they can be—safety wise. You can rest assured that when I pack my wife and baby in a plane, then fly over areas populated with homes and schools, I take it very seriously. Maybe I am naive but I think most other pilots think the same.

“Be the best that you can be” is the attitude to use. In this context ‘best’ == ‘safest’.

The FAA has it right when they post you your license - it says on the card (I have it pinned up) “Safety is no accident - it must be planned”.


My comments regarding pilot-macho were intended to refer to a very different context . I know of no (living) pilots who are not extremely safety-aware and responsible: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

I’m referring to many pilots’ acceptance and even embracement of needless complexity, complexity that has nothing to do with—and often compromises—the safe pilotage of aircraft. For example, a small survey published in the June, 1999, Aviation Consumer found that only 40% of respondents favor digital engine controls that would replace the multiple Model T-style engine controls on today’s aircraft with a single-lever power control.

The macho among us continue to choose manual transmissions even in this era when automatics have become so accurate and efficient that race car drivers have embraced them. So, too, do a majority of pilots choose to muddle along, constantly tweaking their inefficient spark advances and propeller RPM controls. Such controls, just as in automobiles, can be quite effective in keeping wives and girlfriends where they belong—out of the pilot's seat.

Of course, the immediate cry will be that manual controls are more reliable. First, there’s no proof of that. Second, if we are so interested in reliability, why do we festoon our aircraft with every boytoy we can cram in, practically ensuring that at least one system will fail? A friend of mine and I flew a rented Cessna 210 down to Catalina a couple weeks ago. This plane had been tricked out by its owner with everything available in the catalog, from stormscope to GPS receiver to an early moving map display so dim you could hardly read it to digital engine readouts to an AM/FM/CD player. And, as per the instructions in our DNA, by the time we returned, we had checked out every single feature on every single one of those toys, even though we had both initially decried such a senseless expenditure on electronic clutter.

Macho also spills over in pilot’s silence. Probably the most bizarre little pocket of cryptic design in aviation can be found in the official FAA weather reports. Not only are there several different secret codings, depending on the type of report, the codings can be downright weird. Weirdest of all is the packing of four bytes of information into two in Surface Aviation Weather Reports for the purpose of delivering wind speed and direction info with the highest possible error factor, one that could lead the unalert pilot into thinking that he would encounter gentle winds upon landing when, in fact, hurricane-force winds await.

Let’s say you have a wind speed of 15 kph coming from 321 degrees. This could be expressed as:

Wind 15 knots from 320 degrees.

But why do that when you could instead say:


(with the 32 being int(321/10)*100 and the 15 being 15). After all, you save a whole bunch of bytes. (Those unschooled in human factors might also argue that it is quicker to read four characters than the thirty characters of the expanded explanation. However, it takes an extremly long time to interpret those four characters, wiping out any alleged savings several times over.)

Unfortunately, the designers of this madness ran into a little problem: What to do when wind speed exceeds 100 knots. But it is really no problem at all, since the wind direction cannot exceed 359 degrees! So, we’ll just:

  1. Subtract 100 from any wind speed over 100 knots
  2. Multiply the 100 by 50 to get 5000
  3. Add the result to the wind direction.

Simple. Wind at 115 knots from 320 degress is written:


So to "unpack" this code, we'll just:

  1. Examine the first two digits of the number, in this case, 82. If those digits exceed 50, subtract 50 and note that the wind is in excess of 100 knots. Then, multiply the digits by 10, revealing, in this case, that wind is from 320 degrees.
  2. Extract the last two digits and, if the first number exceeded 36, add 100 knots to the result. If we noticed the "8" in the wind direction, that gives us a result of 110 knots. If we didn't notice the "8," we die upon attempting to land. But that, of course, would be the pilot's responsibility.

Where are the protests over such idiocy existing in 1999? Nowhere. Why? Because today’s pilots have learned to deal with it and, by golly, anyone else who wants to enter the priesthood should learn to deal with it, too. That, after all, is the only way we can keep out the riff-raff. Consider the response from "Chris":

Any time I see the word “awash” it’s a giant bullshit warning for me. Reading the body of the message confirmed my suspicions.

The last thing we need in the skies are people who feel so safe that they cram a cell phone in their ear and shave or put on makeup, while attempting to control a fast multi-ton machine.

Give me the “macho” filter to keep the sleep-walkers out of the sky unless they sit behind the first bulkhead.

This attitude, which is endemic in the General Aviation community, ensures that new pilots will be scared off before they can ever get their license.

I talked with one young woman who had been drawn to the Katana, a wonderful little fiberglass flying machine from Canada that is a sheer joy to fly, with simple controls and with visibilty and comfort reminiscent of riding a Honda motorcycle, rather than a 1954 Chevrolet with a dirty windshield and springs poking through the seats. Fortunately, her pilot boyfriend was able to talk her out of it. It seems the Katana is just too darn easy to fly, and she should start with an old, beat-up Cessna 152, just like everybody else. The strategy worked: She took two lessons and quit.

That’s why General Aviation is dying.


P. S., we never made it to Catalina. The beat-up old transponder in the aircraft that allows the air traffic controllers to “see” our altitude on their radar scopes failed coming out of Santa Barbara, and we were banned from the LA airspace. The CD player worked fine, though.

Mighty Mouse

Steve wrote:

I wonder, in reading the comments about long web pages, whether you have any view as to “smart” mice (such as the Microsoft mouse) that include an embedded roller to allow scrolling in enabled applications.

I am a die hard Mac fan recently forced into the Windows world and the ONLY solace I have found is this, I think rather elegant, bit of hardware.


And Fredrik wrote:

In a recent AskTog, you wrote:

I hope a few of the good folks making bad trackballs might be listening. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of money trying to con people into buying what are provably inferior products, why not cast a little toward making aftermarket mice that stay clean?

Here's one:

Regards /F

Rolling wheels and knobs are excellent ways for humans to communicate with machines, as the shuttle dials on video editing equipment attest. We built such a mouse at Apple around 10 years ago as part of what became the Taligent project, and it was very effective.

Adding almost any additional pointing controls to the traditional set of one offered by the mouse is almost bound to be a winner. It is nice to have two words in your vocabulary, instead of one.

I haven't played with the new Microsoft mouse myself, but I sure will just as soon as they release the Macintosh version.

Ads—Can't live with them; can't get rid of them.

On the web, many services are offered for free to users and are supported by ads. Ads, of course, have the sole purpose of trying to attract your attention away from whatever you’re trying to do. From a design standpoint, this is horrible. From a user’s standpoint, it’s a nightmare! Some sites have started breaking up their news stories with unrelated information smack in the middle of articles. What’s a user to do, besides turn off images or use ad blocking software that rarely works?


The reason you are seeing ads breaking content in the middle is that people have learned to not see banner ads anymore. It isn't that they don't read them, they literally don't see them. Their eyes begin scanning at a point just below the ad.

Americans are now being hit with in excess of 3000 advertising impressions per day, and the number keeps growing. Ironically, a small but growing percentage of these are being worn by common folk who are receiving no compensation for acting has human billboards.

My own experience with the AskTog site has proven that if you don't get in people's faces with ads, they won't respond to them. Since I don't really depend on the income (loss, actually) from this site, I don't feel the pressure to place ads all over the place. Instead, I depend on my loyal readers to find just the one at the top of this very page that leads to the AskTog discount portal at Amazon. Open 24 hours a day.

Advertising is suffering from runaway inflation. TV shows are shrinking, radio has become one continuous commercial with an occasional program break. It is little wonder that webland is suffering a similar fate.

TV remote controls did nothing to stop the proliferation of ads, but they certainly cleaned up the quality, moving us from "You have Bad Breath! Baaaaaaad Breath!" to today's minifilms where you are sometimes hard-pressed to figure out the name of the sponsor.

The equivalent in webland are programs like Webfree (for the Mac) that block the ads before they ever arive. The advertisers are striking back, with clever workarounds, but if we keep up the pressure, they will learn, as the TV folks did, that the way to our hearts is not blocking our reading, but offering us exciting, entertaining, and useful ads that don't get in our way, but that will make us seek them out. Today's web ads are falling far short of the mark.

As for the total impact of advertising on our lives, I don't know the way out. This current inflation seems impossible to stem, even though it does nothing to increase our discretionary income, which means that one-tenth the advertising would have the exact same effect. Its as though everyone just keeps screaming louder and louder, trying to be heard above the spiraling din.

The only cure I've found so far is Egypt. After spending a few weeks there, I flew to Athens. I suddenly found Western advertising, both in terms of quantity and content, to be shocking. In Egypt you see but a few ads, and none of them are Gen-X—insulting, profane, and in your face. Almost makes you yearn for Pleasantville.

Browsers=Nirvana—A difference of opinion

I keep observing that empirically, people would in general rather access information and applications through a browser than through a custom client. Perhaps consistency is a higher virtue in GUI design than all the others put together? Browsers at least offer a consistent interface to everything.

Another hypothesis that explains the facts is that the combination of forward, back, click-on-self-describing-hyperlink, and fill-out-simple- form happens to be a strong maximum on the payback-vs.-complexity curve.

I was at a conference a few years back and a speaker from the then Tandem was talking about their travails with a document management system. She said how wonderful it was when all the vendors went to browser-based interfaces, because the primitive options available in the browser forced them to impose radical simplification on their user interfaces.

Another take: the single most damaging influence on user interfaces is the necessity to impress strolling executives in the trade-show context, by showing off lots of features in the minimal time.


A lot of "custom clients" really suck really, really bad, so your observation is not surprising. And the severe limitations of the browser have indeed, to this point, kept the more bizarre would-be designers in check. However, I would suggest to you that many of the people making these technology decisions have no intentions of ever using the product themselves and are being driven as strongly by fashion as by careful analysis. I have never faced so difficult a task in my life as getting normal human beings through the 10 page form necessary to apply for benefits in the workplace.

Browsers still today lack even the most rudimentary tools available to the custom-client developer, tools as simple as pull-down menus that have something to do with the application, instead of the browser.

With Microsoft's success in virtually eliminating the competition, we now have one browser, Internet Explorer, and that browser is getting better (as long as you are using Windows, not Mac, of course). If the IE designers once turn their attention to the needs of complex application developers, we may well get the tools and capabilities we need to write real software.

I understand the point that the woman from Tandem was making, and I might even agree with her if I had not faced the horrors of the all but insurmountable obstacles placed in my way the last four years by this crude interface technology.

And if the interface weren’t bad enough, the underlying technology is even worse. My wife and I spent more than two and a half hours this weekend selecting movies on the DVD Express website. Not only is the “express” in their name a paradox, since it is one of the slowest sites I’ve ever come across but, when we finally hit the “buy” button at the end of this odyssey, the system reported back an untranslatable system message and threw away our 2.5 hour’s work. Now we’re out a fine collection of DVDs and DVD Express is not only out $327.30, they are permanently out a customer.

There is a difference between crude and simple.

Don't miss the next action-packed column!
Receive a brief notice when new columns are posted by sending a blank email to

return to top

Contact Us:  Bruce Tognazzini
Copyright Bruce Tognazzini.  All Rights Reserved