The Invention of Hyperlinks

We take hyperlinks for granted, so let’s imagine that they were never invented.

Posted Jan 04, 2018

It’s the early 1980s, primitive days in the development of computers. Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, is hard at work with graduate student Dan Ostroff preparing a videodisk exhibit for a museum. He has set up a computer screen with a menu of numbered choices a user can make to view videodisk photos on a television screen.

The computer screen shows the photo captions and then lists the numbered choices to allow exploration in this virtual tour. This capability is all very new and exciting. The users don’t have to go through all the material in order, like reading a story. Instead, the users can identify what photos they want to inspect next and jump there by simply typing the menu item number. Such wonderful freedom.

Shneiderman highlights the photo that interests him and then types the number into the text box and hits “enter” to view that photo and read the caption. As Shneiderman plays around with the menu, he gets frustrated by the effort of shifting his attention from the caption to the numbered menu items and then to the keyboard to enter the numbers.

Then it hits him: “The caption has all the information I need – why not just click on the text in the caption to display the next photo? I don’t have to read the numbered items in the menu. I don’t have to enter the numbers on the keyboard anymore.”

He has invented the hyperlink.

At first, he calls his discovery an “embedded menu” but that term is quickly replaced by “hyperlink.” Tim Berners-Lee cited Shneiderman’s hyperlink work in his spring 1989 manifesto for what would become the World Wide Web.

We now take hyperlinks for granted, so let’s imagine that Shneiderman never invented them, and no one else did. We are going to subtract hyperlinks from our user experience.

Think about how you would navigate, using your smartphone or your PC. How would you take advantage of touchscreens? How would you perform drag and drop operations? You’d be working through menus. Even if we toss Siri into the mix, imagine telling Siri how to sort through your photographs or select a size and color of a sweatshirt to order.

Hyperlinks are so natural that they’ve become invisible unless we make a special effort like this as a way to appreciate them. Hyperlinks were one application of Shneiderman's theory of direct manipulation, which also led to the tiny touch-screen keyboards on mobile devices, tagging family photos, gestural interaction, and other visual interfaces. All these discoveries earned Shneiderman election to the National Academy of Engineering. Shneiderman and his community not only conjured up these ideas, they wrote the guidelines and specifications so that they operate on all the devices we use, whether powered by Apple, Microsoft, or any other vendors. The guidelines have become international standards.

These features are invisible and natural. They are so natural that a 3-year-old can navigate our devices. Even a 3-year old who has never previously had a chance to play with a smartphone. Next time you have the chance, take a few pictures of a 3-year-old (with its parents’ permission, of course), and show the child the results. Hand the phone to the child, who should have little trouble scrolling through the photographs, swiping forward and backward. And if you close the file and turn your back, don’t be surprised if your 3-year old sneaks over and opens the file back up. And then starts opening up other apps. Or navigates hierarchies, getting at files of family members or recent trips. If you’re not careful, the 3-year-old will wander over to your laptop and try to click on words and images, perhaps hoping to get to music or videos.

In addition to hypertext and direct manipulation, Human-Computer Interaction researchers have brought us a number of other innovations such as 1-click faceted menus (a staple of e-commerce), bulletin boards that evolved into blogs and wikis, search interfaces, and so forth.

When we consider our smartphones and laptops it’s natural to think about the technologies crammed into these devices. We may also think about the screen designs that make it possible to get what we want. Most people ignore the invisible part — all the work that’s gone into evolving and standardizing the user experience that is now second nature to us.   

[You can read more about the early history of hyperlinks and about direct manipulation by clicking on these two links — but you already knew that.}