I’ve been struggling with how to express a particular aspect of what we call the cinematic user experience: how film creates an emotional connection with the viewer and how such a connection also enhances software design.

Helena Kimball mentioned to me that she heard something on the radio that seemed connected to this. By the magic of the internet, I was able to translate “I heard it on NPR this morning” into “Fresh Air interviews Werner Herzog on the Story Behind ‘Rescue Dawn’” In it he says:

“What constitutes truth? In, for example, a great poem, when you read Robert Frost, and you have some very deep feeling about it, and all of a sudden you have this sensation there is some deep inexplicable and mysterious truth in it; and the same thing happens in movies. And it does not happen strangely enough in most of the documentaries that you would see on television. You would not find it in the so-called cinéma vérité which can only scratch the surface of what is truth: it’s the accountant’s truth; it’s the bookkeeper’s truth. And yet I have been for years after the question: how can you dig into a very deep stratum of truth, into something inexplicable, something mysterious? And, of course, you can reach it, and you can find it, but normally through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, sometimes even contorting and stylizing events right out there, and then all of a sudden you will find something strange and deep and elusive and that is a certain truth.”

I hesitate to compare the truth of a man’s experience of war to the truth of reading your email or filing your taxes. Sometimes the reality of software design seems so mundane as to be almost petty, and yet, I feel it important to honor the people who pay money for and especially those who spend time with the software that I write. These moments of their lives are important and hold their own truth.

Graphical user interfaces have traditionally been so devoid of emotional content as to be dehumanizing. Of course, this lack of emotional content was expressed as a virtue: all Windows applications should look the same lest we confuse the poor users. Who would recognize a button were it not a 20 pixel high embossed rectangle with a text label or a similar square with an icon?

Then along came the web, which broke all tradition. Taking a look at the very basic evolution of the button: the web’s original blue underlined links were quickly augmented by graphics that matched the overall personality of the website. Yet despite this altered look, people were still able to recognize a button when they saw one (for the most part). The unique look of each website reinforces a feeling of place, and I believe, the unique look, in context, reinforces a relationship between the viewer and the website, augmenting the experience.

In another interview, Herzog says “You have to invent. You have to stylize. There’s absolutely no danger in that. The danger is to stupidly believe that depicting facts gives us much insight.”

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