We see the need for a new generation of user interfaces. There seems to be a split about this in society. We wanted to share our view on it and describe 10 characteristics of future user interfaces including some video examples.
When Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Friedrich Benz invented a motor that was small and light enough to fit in a car, it changed the world. It revolutionized the way we think about relationships, how we do business or enjoy our free time.
During the initial growth of the car industry, nobody considerably thought about possible consequences of mass adoption like a shortage in parking, traffic jams or air pollution. Following the old saying, the dose alone makes the poison, a truly disruptive and beneficial technology caused a new set of problems that nobody saw coming and that we are now dealing with.
We’re at the same point when in comes to our interaction with technology, in particular with graphical user interfaces like computers and smartphones.
Today, we spend more than 7 hours a day looking at screens. When I look at my friends and myself, it’s more like 10+ hours a day.
Since the introduction of the smartphone, we have started to fill every gap in our lifes, from the moment we get up in the morning (35% check the web before getting out of bed), when we visit the loo until the time when we go to sleep.
The benefits come with negative side effects like the growing inability to share our undivided attention with others, the inability to separate work and private life, the inability of children to learn empathy, the inability to reflect thoughts which is a prerequisite for mental health and creativity or even addiction and withdrawal symptoms (37% of UK adults and 60% of teens self report “addiction”).
After digitising our work tools, games and communication, we’re now in the process of transferring our “things” like lights and speakers onto the smartphone and we spend even more time looking at screens. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab calls this “not a particularly enlightened idea of the internet of things.”
There are more problems that not only come from the amount of time we spend looking at screens but from the design of screens themselves like accessibility to old or handicapped people, time to action, cognitive load, muscle strain or limitations in human capabilities.
There is a need for a new generation of user interfaces and people are expressing this need.
However, the discussion on our last blog posts have shown that there seems to be a big split in society. One half sees screens and the smartphone as the go to solution for human computer interaction (HCI). The other half is hoping for something different. Some companies like Ford and Philips have already reacted by introducing physical user interfaces. Interestingly enough, both groups insist to refuse that the other group exists which makes it a very interesting problem.
We believe that user interfaces will fundamentally change. The reason why they haven’t done so thus far is because of a number of barriers which are now falling.
- Hardware is becoming easier to develop and manufacture thanks to technologies like 3D printers or Arduino.
- The price for hardware is dropping significantly thanks to the mass adoption of consumer electronics like smartphones.
- Technologies like sensors or wifi-chips become a widely available and cheap commodity and are easy to integrate.
- Since hardware is becoming easier to develop and manufacture, the focus will shift away from technology and will focus more on design or “problem solving”; the same way it happened in software thanks to the growth of APIs.
- Software today is built with 50 years of unconscious assumptions of a work tool in mind. There are innovators, especially from the design world, who break through these assumption and create completely new user interfaces.
We believe and hope that the future of human computer interaction will show the following 10 characteristics. We’ll show some video examples that express some of these characteristics below.
One of the major changes is that user interfaces will shift away from a centralized device like our smartphone again. This might seem counterintuitive at first but is not uncommon and makes sense. Energy for example also shifted from dumb energy (like shipping coal into an oven) to centralized energy generation and is now shifting towards decentralized energy again due to new technologies like solar panels. User interfaces like the light switch shifted onto the smartphone and will now shift away again into smart light switches, speech or completely new forms like eye tracking. You won’t need to carry your interface around anymore (except for a watch if you like). Interfaces will be where you need them to be.
Interfaces will shift away from a generic screen towards more specific interfaces that only do a small number of things and that are specifically designed for that use case. A good analogy are shoes. You don’t use dress shoes for playing soccer or climbing. There will be more and more interfaces that are manufactured in smaller batches but that better fit the specific situation. In HCI, this means specific interfaces for designers that have a focus on haptics, interfaces for elderly people that have a focus on simplicity and unambiguity or interfaces for kids which will have a focus on playfulness.
Graphical user interfaces have many limitations. They are not accessible to visually impaired or handicapped people. They only use the visual sense and a reduced version of haptics. They can have straining effects on our hand, neck or eyes. Future interfaces will be designed with human biology and psychology in mind. They will integrate more of our human senses. Once the iWatch becomes a mass phenomenon, people will get used to consuming information through different senses. Other interfaces will use our brain waves or body movements for example.
Putting multiple applications on one device means that you will need to deal with menus. With decentralized, specific interfaces, this will be obsolete. Things will be instant again, like grabbing the newspaper next to your cup of coffee rather than browsing through menus. The question is not weather actions take 1, 3 or 5 steps. The question will be if an action can be done instantly or not. This also reduces our cognitive load which allows us to focus our attention on the task at hand or the person in front of us.
Trying to do the wrong thing right doesn’t make them better. The light switch is still the best example. No matter how intuitive you try to make an app that controls your smart lights, the experience will be worse than getting up and hitting a light switch. The large number of people that stop using their smart devices after a few days is proof of that. Future interfaces will ignore the assumed integration with graphical user interfaces and will focus on making things simpler than existing solutions.
We quote one of our friends a lot who described that to her “technology is a necessary evil”. Technology can be stressful with the anxiety of pop up notification or the inability to differentiate between work and private life . Technology will not be in the foreground anymore. It will assist people in their lives and blend in to the background. It will disappear into walls, tables, micro projectors or glass.
Augmented and Virtual
The digital and physical will blend together. Be it through augmented reality glasses or not, you will be able to read context information about a broken motor not through a phone but directly in the surrounding “space” of the object.
This is already a major trend in HCI. You won’t need to trigger every action manually anymore but sensors will do that job for you. Examples include the garage door that can track when you’re getting close to your house or lights that turn on automatically when you’re walking into a room.
A race driver would never replace his physical wheel and buttons for a tablet. A musician would never replace his guitar. Haptic and tangible interfaces have value. It allows you to use your motoric memory and a multitude of senses (like haptics, awareness of positioning, sound of a click and vision). It allows you to interact with technology in the most natural way.
The future will be magical. It will be full of things that are only starting to evolve or that we cannot imagine yet. We will be able to talk to rooms and machines in natural language. We will be able make gestures in the air to trigger actions. We will only have to think of things to happen and they will. The future of human computer interaction is just around the corner and it will be an exciting and brave new world.
Nuimo is our first product that was designed with humans in mind. It is a tangible control that gives you precise, fast and natural access to your favorite actions. We have a number of exciting products planned.
We believe and we hope that the future of human computer interaction will be less about computers and more about humans. We hope you do too.