Larry Tesler, the man who didn’t like fashions, dies

Larry Tesler died on February 17 at 74. He is one of the pioneers of research on human-machine interactions and the graphical interface. His work has extended to the current interfaces on computers and smartphones.

Tesler went through the Xerox PARC before going to Apple and then Amazon and Yahoo, without forgetting his contribution to the creation of ARM, the processor designer whose designs are used today by all smartphone manufacturers.

Larry Tesler, 2007. Image: Stephen Woods / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Initially reluctant to the idea that a mouse could simplify the use of a computer, he changed his rifle after having tested the accessory by average users. This led him to take an interest in the design of programs and prototypes for evaluating software and their interfaces.

Very early on he forbidden thinking about an interface where we would perform actions in a natural way, without having to enter a “mode” beforehand. His credo, displayed even on his license plate, was: “NO MODES”.

These “modes”, for example to modify a text, were activated by means of keyboard commands, with the disadvantage, for distracted users, of being confused with the typing of their text. Or that they no longer know how to exit this mode once the operation has been carried out. He wanted to remove this compartmentalization between actions.

Tesler wanted to reverse the logic of progression. Go from choosing an action (ie entering a mode) followed by selecting the text to modify, to a process where you select the text in the document and only then apply the action . No need to activate an edit mode to modify a line, you just had to select it and type its corrections.

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The first experiments with the Alto computer at Xerox PARC still involved some gymnastics, as this video from 2017 shows, for the Computer Museum, where Tesler used Gypsy, his text editor at the time. He manipulates his mouse, the keyboard and a small piano of commands to chain the actions.

But we note that once a text has been copied (and set aside in a visible area of ​​the screen, the ancestor of the Clipboard) the user can continue to do something else, such as continuing his input work. It is not locked into a mode that it would be necessary to quit before you can do anything else.

It is also to Tesler and to some of his colleagues at PARC that we owe the advances on the notions of cut / copy-paste, or the principle of a list of commands gathered in a contextual menu.

After Apple’s visit to PARC, he joined Steve Jobs in 1980. He remained in Cupertino until 1997. He participated in the creation of Lisa, particularly by campaigning with Bill Atkinson to use a mouse with a single button. He piloted the advanced research group (where he pushed his teams in the fields of 3D graphics, animation, speech synthesis), then he contributed to the construction site of Newton or eWorld network.

From 2001 to 2005 he worked at Amazon on the purchasing experience, then he went to Yahoo for three years where he still practiced in the areas of user experience. Between 2009 and 2020 he was on his own, as a consultant.

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