Magic Ink

March 1, 2012

Thanks to reddit I’ve just discovered Bret Victor. I watched the Invention video, and enjoyed the whole theme on tightening the feedback loop between changing code and seeing results. The later part on moral crusading was interesting if not entirely convincing. So I checked out the web site, and am reading Magic Ink. Wow ! This is a full blown vision of doing software differently. Back in the 90s I got really excited by, in turn, Brad Cox’s vision, Patterns, and Open Source. About 10 years ago I discovered dynamically typed languages with Python and Smalltalk. And that’s the last time I had a real rush of excitement about some new approach in software. Sure, I’ve dabbled in functional languages like F#, and played with various OSS projects. But for the most part my attention has been on the trading topics that fascinate me, like electronic limit order books.

So what’s Magic Ink about ?  Victor divides software into three categories: information, manipulation and communication software. He focuses on information software, which is most apps really. And that includes most financial and trading apps. And then he proceeds to argue that there’s too much interactivity, and that interaction is bad. The way forward is context sensitivity combined with history and graphic design. Counterintuitive, and utterly convincing. A joy to read !

I can’t help wondering what the UX crew over at Caplin think of this ?  I haven’t seen them blogging on it. Victor’s views have radical implications for how etrading apps should work. I’d expect Sean Park to be pushing this angle with his portfolio companies too…

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11 Responses to “Magic Ink”

  1. mdavey Says:

    The tree in Bret’s video is just cool – http://vimeo.com/36579366

    • etrading Says:

      I really like the platform game, and the back and fwd in time stuff. Also the debugging example. Commenters have observed that all that stuff is demoware, and there’s no platform behind it. There is lots of prior art though. The idea of a single seamless buildtime and runtime is not new. Lot’s of visual dev envs have done it – for example scratch from MIT, which is based on Squeak (open source smalltalk). Android AppInventor uses scratch. However the idea of being able to wind state fwd and back, tweak inputs, and capture sets of intermediate results is new to me, and exciting. Likely to be very memory hungry to do though…


  2. […] to Magic Ink. As Coding states, an awful lot of this paper is relevant to financial and trading applications. The […]


  3. Hi J Long time no speak.

    Yes Bret Victor is a real inspiration. I have copies of most of his writing in my DevonThink.
    I even grabbed the ‘Invention video’ on my rarely updated tumblelog in February (www.detyro.co.uk). In fact we liked the video so much we also ran it as a Tech talk within Caplin 🙂

    It’s great that Bret references Edward Tufte (again an inspiration of ours).

    I was waiting for him to also mention Deiter Rams then we would have had a full house of people that inspire (me)!

    We are working on a product for creating structured products at the moment the opportunities for applying magic ink is obvious! (I agree with your take that most financial software is within the information category, but we should also think beyond that… considering opportunities of ‘Manipulation software’ can offer very interesting, so too can integrating ‘Communication software’ through including social/trending aspects too)

    Some takeaways for me include:
    “…good manipulation software must provide superb visualization as well. This establishes the feedback loop that is critical for all creative activity—the manipulator must see the effects of her manipulation. Thus, manipulation software design is also a significant graphic design challenge.”

    http://worrydream.com/MagicInk/#p246
    “The first step toward the information software revolution is widespread recognition of the need for design. It must be universally understood that information software is not a machine, but a medium for visual communication…”

    http://worrydream.com/MagicInk/#p256
    [On CSS…] “the larger and more germane fault is the attempt to serve as both tool and platform, thereby succeeding as neither.”

    Just when I started to think the GUI was going to be replaced by the VUI… seems we were just getting wormed up.

    I agree with you about the radical implications… but often it’s a case of finding the radicals that are prepared to ‘recognise the need for design’ to begin the journey… but once the box is opened…

    One day all software will be ‘magic ink’ 🙂

    • etrading Says:

      Duncan: yes, finding clients prepared to be radical with UI designs must be a challenge. In etrading we do tend to stay with our pricing blotter, trade blotter, order/RFQ history blotter and our various tickets. As Bret points out, interaction is often just navigation. And when we navigate around an information app, the interaction/navigation forces the app’s internal model into the user’s head. Trading apps are potentially rich in history and context sensitivity. So there’s no reason a click on a trade blotter can’t cause a context shift in a pricing blotter. Or an RFQ ticket can’t cause a trade blotter to filter…

  4. detyro Says:

    Reblogged this on Tails from a trading desk and commented:
    One day all applications will be made from magic Ink! – no I haven’t been sniffing the Magic Markers again… ‘Coding the Markets’ wants to see these changes in financial trading applications NOW! Why wait?


  5. […] uncovers the evils of interaction design Posted on March 2, 2012 by caplin1duncan Over on Coding the Markets there is an interesting discussion around Bret Victor and his treatise on UI design ‘Magic […]


  6. […] posted earlier on Bret Victor’s Magic Ink. Now I’ve finished reading this quite lengthy paper. In the […]


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    Too cool!


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