A very old article from the BBC Archives… but very interesting all the same!
Web wizards weave their magic
The workings of the internet and magic may seem worlds apart, but to one prominent web design thinker, they share much in common.
Former Apple veteran Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini argues that the secrets of successful websites are the same as those of successful magicians.
Now with the usability consultancy firm, the Nielsen Norman Group, Tog has been looking at how people interact with their computers and the net.
He has found a surprising number of similarities between magic and web design.
“Both are based on illusion and misdirection, making us believe something which is not real and doesn’t actually exist,” he says.
Magicians have been weaving their magic for more than 4,000 years, whereas web design is a much more recent phenomenon.
But despite the gap, Tog has identified several key parallels between both disciplines.
For both, the mechanics must seem effortless. For a magician, this means putting on a flawless performance.
For a web designer, it means coming up with a simple, uncluttered design that hides the complexity of a website.
But the parallels are more than just about showmanship, argues Tog.
Much of it revolves around simulation and dissimulation. Magicians do this all the time, making someone believe something which is not actually happening.
The same, says Tog, is true of computing, citing the example of the trashcan icon on the Apple desktop.
“At the time, we thought it was cool,” he says, recalling his days at Apple.
But when you drag a document into the trashcan, you are not really deleting it. All you are doing is deleting a pointer to the document. It is still somewhere on the hard drive.
This applies equally to web design. Tog cites an example from the early days of the net, when people would continually press the submit button on a page because it looked like nothing was happening.
In fact, the computer was processing the request. Since this was taking some time, people would press the button while waiting, starting the whole process again.
To get over this problem, the designers replaced the button with the icon of a coffee cup. They found that by hiding the submit button like this, people would patiently wait for the process to finish.
Tog argues illusions like those used by magicians are common place in the world of computing and the net.
For example, ADSL broadband is said to be always on. In reality routers routinely drop the connection if nothing is happening, only to connect again within seconds when you are back at the computer.
“Keep it useful, keep it swift and then add showmanship,” Tog advises any would-be web wizards.