Future UI Directions

We used to have server computers, desktop computers, and notebook computers. Life was simple. We still have all those but we now also have the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Palm Pre. We're also soon going to have a whole bunch of tablets and possibly one from Apple too.

From a design perspective, we're seeing two entirely different user interface paradigms and interaction styles currently--computer and mobile. On the computer side, we have three basic flavors all of which are pretty well the same--Windows, OSX, and Linux. On the mobile side, we have the iPhone/Touch and the Pre operating systems which are also quite similar to one another. When tablets are introduced, they'll likely have a UI much more similar to the mobile than the computer paradigms. Given the hype about the tablets before any have been released and Apple hasn't even confirmed they're working on one, they'll likely be highly successful. If so, it'll be interesting to see what happens to computer OS UIs. Add into the mix the fact that most applications will be in the cloud, have a browser as their app container, and the fact that Google is developing an operating system optimized for this environment and we have a dramatically changing environment.

All of this suggests that we're in for an interesting and exciting time over the next while given this evolution of user interfaces and interaction styles. I believe the future will involve a combination of what we see in the mobile space today together with what we see as cloud-based Rich Internet Applications in the browser. What we know as computer user interfaces and interaction styles today will be a thing of the past and won't be carried into the future, although this may take a while to be fully realized given the install-base of traditional computers and operating systems. I believe designers need to stay on top of these paradigm shifts in user interface and user interaction because the rate of change is increasing dramatically. We may even see a reemergence of voice, possibly large gesture (beyond touch with fingers), and hopefully a sixth-sense style display sometime in the near future too. We may get that Minority Report dream yet.

As always, I'd greatly appreciate hearing any views you may have on this via the comment facility below.

What's messing up our UIs?

I use a variety of operating systems but my primary OS is Windows. Everybody seems to be bashing Windows lately and the bashing has only subsided a bit with the introduction of Windows 7. Seems to me that most personal computer operating systems still have a long way to go before they'll be great. The real advances have in fact been made in mobile operating systems. I believe that there are more similarities than differences between Windows and Mac OS X with the latter appearing to be better due to recent hype and because Apple drives greater consistency across its UIs.

I've been trying to put my finger on why my experience with Windows has changed recently. And then it hit me! It's the fact that the Windows UI is being messed up by applications that create a completely inconsistent user experience on Windows. Of the applications I use, iTunes is an example of this, being totally inconsistent with the rest of Windows in look and feel. The Adobe Air applications like Twhirl and TweetDeck similarly are completely inconsistent with Windows. For example, I find the Windows model of being able to resize a window by grabbing any side or corner far superior to the Mac model of having to find the few pixels at the bottom right of a window. Twhirl and TweetDeck introduce the inferior Mac design to Windows and, as a result, mess up the consistency of using apps on Windows. By comparison, Google Chrome has introduced enhanced UI elements when used, for example, in application mode. However, the fundamental interaction style is still maintained and the UI change is in fact an improvement.

I think we all jump to conclusions too quickly, become fan boys and girls, and then exhibit a herd mentality about issues of design. As users, we should all be concerned that applications that don't follow standards and conventions could further mess up the user experience we have with them. As customers, I believe we should expect applications that are consistent with the platform they will be used on.

I'd appreciate any thoughts you may have on this by using the commenting feature of this blog.

Designing for the Cloud

I've been taking note of my experiences in working with applications running in the cloud. For me this includes applications like Gmail, Facebook, Podbean, Delicious, Blogger, Twitter, Skype, and Google Docs. Overall, I'm really impressed with the convenience of accessing them from anywhere on virtually any device and not having to worry about where my data are. With only a few exceptions, I'm also really pleased with the functionality of these in-the-cloud apps. In fact, I rather like the approach of providing only the base functionality first and then adding just the few additional capabilities over and above the base. This is in constrast to many traditional apps that are so function rich that they end up being unusable.

The challenges often cited in working with these apps can be summed up as relating to availability, speed, and design. While most of these apps have pretty good availability, there are the rare times when they're not available. In fact, availability is so good for most of these that it makes the news when one isn't. To be fair, though, these apps have better availability than the power to our homes. In other words, I've had more power outages to my home than Gmail being down. However, the smaller companies, like Podbean, don't do as well on this score.

Speed is another challenge often mentioned. However, again, I'd argue that with only the odd exception, the apps I use are pretty nimble. Of course, the speed of these apps is determined largely by the speed of your broadband connection. I haven't experienced any speed problems again other than with the apps from the smaller vendors.

That brings us to design. This is where I believe the greatest challenge is at the moment. Many of these apps have not based their designs on well-proven user interface design patterns. As a result, they are quirky and often lead to user errors. They appear to mix up website design with application design when the latter is clearly required. Functions are often hidden or included in too many places. Often a user interface element is available but then moves on the page since the full page hadn't painted yet. And, perhaps the most annoying of the design challenges - the lack of autosave. The Google apps excel in this regard. As I write this using Google's Blogger, it is regularly performing an autosave operation every three minutes. That gives me peace of mind and allows me to recover if for some reason my connection was lost or something else happened to my session. I've had horrible experiences with apps that do not autosave recently including Facebook and Podbean.

These applications are clearly the future and with enough focus from designers, these apps will continue to get better and better. I'd appreciate it if you have any experiences to share regarding these apps, please provide a comment using the capability provided. You may want to comment on Blogger's commenting design as well.

Design with the End in Mind

Stephen Covey in his now famous book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", introduced the habit of begin with the end in mind. I've been applying Covey's ideas to all aspects of my life for some years and they were also an inspiration for one of the two podcast series I produce called quite naturally, Life Habits. I've also been of the view for some years that many of Covey's habits apply directly to the practice of design but the one that is most relevant is begin with the end in mind.

These was a trend some years ago which advocated starting a software development project by writing the user manual first. While an interesting idea from some perspectives, I always thought that this didn't go far enough. I advocated and still do that the first thing that should be designed in the advertisement.

The advertisement, if done correctly, clearly communicates the benefit the user will gain and/or the business value a company will realize if the product is purchased and used. Furthermore, the advertisement should communicate how the benefit/business value will be realized. This information should become the vision document and the highest level objectives for the design.

As in life, if you start your design with the end in mind, you're much more likely to achieve it.

Design Makes Users More Forgiving

One of the benefits of good design is that it appears to have the effect of making users more forgiving of other problems with a product. I've come across a number of examples of this where customers accept a lower level of performance or reliability if the product's design was considered to be of a high quality. When customers fall in love with a product due to it's superior design, they tend to overlook other problems. An example of this that I've been experiencing has been the date and time settings on my iPod Touch. The problem occurs when I plug my iPod Touch into my computer and iTunes in order to sync it. If iTunes is already running, it causes the date and time on the Touch to get totally messed up. For example, I did a synch yesterday evening and the date was reset to Friday, June 27, 2008 and the time 4:41 a.m. This doesn't happen if iTunes isn't running when I plug the Touch into the computer. So, I can avoid the problem by making sure that iTunes isn't running (which it normally is on my computer) before I plug in the device. I put up with this problem largely because I really like using my Touch and figure that Apple will get around to fixing this sometime in the future. Every software update gets my hopes up that this problem will also be fixed but thus far those hopes have been dashed. I'm sure if I had that same type of problem with a product with a far inferior design, I would be much more upset. So, the lesson here is that design can have the effect of reducing calls to the help line and while you still need to fix problems with products but customers may be more patient in waiting for it.

Lowering the Barrier to Entry

I had a discussion with a customer today that got me thinking. Despite the pervasiveness of computers - desktops, notebooks, and now even netbooks - a number of people are still not comfortable with computer technology. However, these same people are often quite comfortable with cell or mobile phones. If these people had so-called smart phones to date, they likely haven't used many of the features of the phone that are considered "smart". Those aspects of the user interface have often simply been too complicated on the smart phones that have been available, until recently.

Full screen and multitouch user interfaces were first introduced with Apple's iPhone and now also available on the Google Android G1 phones and the new RIM Blackberry Storm. The far superior user interface on these phones, the intuitiveness of the interaction style, and the simplicity of operation (turning them on and off, installing apps, etc.) may well have the effect of lowering the barrier to entry for the very people who haven't felt completely comfortable with computer technology to date. When these devices can be fully untethered from computers completely, they may well become the sole computer devices used by these types of users. When you couple this potential trend with the observation that so-called emerging markets already use cell phones as the primary way to access the internet, we may be witnessing the emergence of the most important and pervasive computer device yet.

The 8 Billion Dollar Design Challenge

It has been estimated that advertisers will spend $8 billion this year on search engines. The companies on which this money will be spent are attempting to enhance their designs in order to compete in this market while at the same time having to balance the interests of users completing the search and advertisers wanting them to consider their products. Add to this, the rather dramatic changes in the content mix on the web with a greater volume of video and image material.

Google entered the market in 1998 and succeeded due to 1) superior search accuracy, 2) simplicity of its user interface, and 3) its ability to make advertising relevant to the search and insert it non-obtrusively in the search results. This is really a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) success story. Providing users what they want in a way that they want and incorporating the business model for Google seamlessly into the user experience by making it relevant and minimalist. It is truly HCI brilliance!

However, the vastly increased importance of the online platform for advertising (as witnessed by the recent takeover bids of search companies) and the new media formats on the web have created a design challenge for companies in the search engine business. In a recent article entitled Gunning for Google, author Matt Vella summarizes the key design challenges and what the major companies are doing to address them.

Well-Designed UIs Critical in Enterprise Software Buying

An article on Wallstreet Online reports on a recent study conducted by Forrester Consulting on the importance of user interface design on enterprise purchase decisions. The study found that 82 percent of those who make purchase decisions consider an enterprise software application's user interface a determining factor when deciding to replace their enterprise software and 90 percent indicated the user interface as a priority when purchasing additional new software. This corroborates recent conversations I've had with people in large enterprises as well. I think this indicates two things. First, that user interface design is becoming much more important and we're starting to see actual numeric validation of it.

I would argue that users have seen the importance of good user interface design for a long time and this has resulted in us seeing better and better designed products for the consumer market. Remember that the user and the purchase decision-maker are typically one and the same in the consumer market. However, that is not typically the case in the enterprise market where users are not normally the decision-makers too. It has therefore taken longer for the importance of good design to be realized by enterprise decision-makers. However, this study and recent experiences I've had indicate that the importance of good UI design is now not only realized by enterprise purchase decision-makers but it is also seen as critical to them in making their decisions.

The substantive findings here are important but also the fact that they exist at all. Studies like this that examine the importance of design to business have in the past been all too few. We need more applied research like this investigating and quantifying the business importance of design.

Raising the Bar on OS UIs

I've just been looking at the demo of the Leopard release of Apple's OSX and I'm struck by how many of the enhancements could be considered Apple catching up with enhancements that Microsoft put into its Vista UI. While there are really cool unique UI features being introduced by Apple, I'm struck, and somewhat surprised, to see so many similarities to recent Windows enhancements. This is probably healthy though in that it raises the level of visual and interaction design in software products that are pervasive across all industries. I think that bodes well for the importance of visual and interaction design in general. Its always nice to see customers voting with their pocketbooks reinforcing the importance of great design.

Have a go yourself with the Apple - Mac OS X Leopard - Guided Tour. Now, if I could only have a right mouse button and a backspace key on my MacBook!