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How the Desktop Metaphor Helped Windows Take Over the World

The desktop metaphor made it easier for people to learn complex computer tasks.

Most people reading this post will have used computers most of their lives. This is not just true of so-called digital natives born in the post smartphone era. It's also true of people like me.

I was introduced to computers as a second-grader in 1968. My best friend, Pam, and I were recruited into a psychology study at the local university. They wanted to see if computers could be used to help young children learn math. They could. Our pictures were in what seemed like every newspaper in the Northeast.

Computers were not user-friendly then. You programmed them on cards with 80 character limits. No backspace. No delete. No memory. Just 80 perfect characters.

Binary Ape, used by permission
80 column IBM punched card
Source: Binary Ape, used by permission

Instructions were opaque. A misplaced comma or period or extra space could waste hours of debugging.

The interface we used to do math was cutting edge. We sat in front of a roll of paper. The computer printed the questions. We typed in the answers. It told us if we were correct or not and presented the next question accordingly. Interactive!

With the encouragement of my engineer father, who thought computers were the future, I grabbed every opportunity after that to program, play with tech, and generally muck about with computers. Yes, I used telnet in the '70s, the pre-browser Internet, and Netscape 1.0. I have what is probably one of the oldest continuously displayed webpages still up on the Internet (Ian's Land of Castles).

Metaphors and Learning

I was reminded of that this morning when helping an 89-year-old try to save a Word file with a new name. Many older adults are fluent with computers. (Hi Mom!) Others struggle. This was the latter.

I have written before about how metaphors can help us understand tough topics like bias and consent. Metaphors work by taking something we know well and using that existing knowledge to shape our understanding of new information. In the consent example, offering someone a cup of tea is used as a metaphor for the invitation to have sex. We know that it would be inappropriate to be angry if the person refused tea or decided not to drink it after it was made. We particularly know that it would be wrong to force them to drink tea they didn't want. The structure of the host and guest interaction is used to understand sexual interactions.

Metaphors are also interesting because they shape the knowledge that is activated when we solve new problems. For example, Paul Thibodeau has done work showing that when we think about crime as a virus rather than a beast, we think about different solutions to solving the problem. People who use different metaphors for considering chronic pain react to it differently.

Microsoft Windows and the Metaphor of the Desk

Prior to the invention of Microsoft Windows, and well before the first AppleOS, there was DOS (Disk Operating System). It was a line by line interface, an interactive screen-based version of the old punch-card commands I used as a little kid. (You can still see and use parts of it when you're working in obscure parts of Windows.)

Windows was a brilliant paradigmatic breakthrough because it changed this line based command system to a more intuitive interface. It did so using a metaphor, that of the desk. Although that metaphor seemed obvious to me (did they actually explain it in the first versions of Windows?) I know it is not explicitly understood by many users. I know I had to explain it to both of my sons. It came as a complete AHA! moment to the 89-year-old this morning.

It's a simple metaphor. When Windows was introduced, few people had desktop computers. But we all had desks. The idea was to take many individualized tasks and structure them within a larger metaphor that would make it easy to remember the vocabulary and linked task structures to make using Windows easier than using DOS. At the time, that ease of use created a critical advantage that compensated for the fact that the visual interface was computationally costlier (metaphor alert) than the slimmer line based command system.

By turning files into documents, directories into folders, and an amorphous drive into a desktop, we changed how we thought about tasks. It opened computing up from a specific language with a complex vocabulary and syntax to a metaphor much easier for most people to learn.

How does Windows work?

You look at your computer screen and see an empty desktop. There are things of the desktop that need to be organized. They're called documents. When you have just a few, it's fine for them to be scattered about. But when you start getting more of them, they need to be organized. How? Organize them in folders.

What other tasks are there? We send documents to one another via mail. And the letters (e-mail) we send often have other documents that go with them. We call those attachments and put them on with a little paperclip. We also have clipboards we use for things we're working on right now, and little disks that once upon a time were used to store things for longer periods of time.

And there we have all the basic icons on old Windows (and Apple) machines.

Metaphors as Helpers

This all struck me again this morning as I was trying to walk my friend through the process of renaming a file. She came to computers late in life (in her 70s). Although she uses a laptop daily, it is a constant struggle, particularly because every single task seems completely arbitrary. She hasn't connected each task with each other in a sequence, the words seem completely foreign, and thus she is struggling to memorize a whole sequence of steps. I cannot count how many times she's told me the email icon is wrong because it shows the back of an envelope instead of the front, as it should.

For her, learning to use a computer has been like the old memory tasks of learning random syllables.

Until this morning.

This morning, I mentioned that she was just moving around documents on her desktop and saving them in folders.

TuOpinas [CC BY-SA 4.0], used by permission
Source: TuOpinas [CC BY-SA 4.0], used by permission

Aha! (Lightbulb moment, another metaphor).

Suddenly all these random words I'd been using (file, attachment, document, desktop) came together and made sense to her. As she slowly worked through that relationship, the burden on her memory seemed to ease and everything started to make sense. In fact, because she knew desktops in the real world intimately, new solutions to her problem started presenting themselves and she started anticipating the next steps in her task.

That's how metaphors are supposed to work. They draw on existing knowledge to improve learning and understanding.

For the majority of users who have used the Windows or Apple operating systems their whole lives, they don't need that metaphor. They learned the steps organically.

I once taught my son to organized a paper notebook by using his computer's file structure to understand folders and tabs. But when first introduced, the desktop metaphor served as a useful structural tool to aid our memory in learning a series of complex tasks. It was one core contributor to Window's ultimate success.