jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Visual Thinking

The ability to visualize a complex system is key to a real understanding of it. To me, this applies to computers and technology. To Daniel Tammet, this applies to numbers and letters, on a far, far more vast scale. Daniel is a savant, an extraordinary person who pushes the boundaries of what we believe we know about human capability and learning. What he has to say rings a bell, because how he views his numbers and letters is similar to how I understand the inner workings of a computer. I can visualize what is going on, or what I want to happen. I can do this because I’ve worked and studied the computer field for years, and because I enjoy the work. What I’ve found is that there is a distinct difference between understanding the technology and memorizing what happens when you click a button.

If you work in the tech industry, memorizing technology is a bad idea. Technology changes, it evolves and grows. It is better to understand the attitudes and purpose of the technology. Networking is a great example. I started out learning about wave propagation theory in the Navy, and about how we could get data from the size, shape, or velocity of the wave. Later, when I went on to learn TCP/IP networking, I found that the data was still transmitted the same way, as 0 or 1, but how it was decoded was different. Then the stack, then the applications, then scripting, and now, I’m learning a high level programming language, and its finally starting to click.

The thing is, I couldn’t have learned these skills if I didn’t have a visual image in my mind about how it worked under the gloss of the computer screen. I can’t imagine trying to use a computer, much less program one, without at least a passing knowledge of what happens when you click that mouse.

Then again, to 99.999% of people, it doesn’t matter, and really shouldn’t. Computers should be so easy to use that you don’t have to learn a new skill to use one effectively. They should be as self explanatory as toasters. Unfortunately, they are not. Windows 7 is coming out this year some time, and it will sport a new user interface which its users will have to learn all over again. Many, many of them will simply try to re-memorize what button does what, and what order to click things in. You shouldn’t have to learn why the computer works the way it does, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. In the end, it makes things much easier too.

hci work