Future UI: Minority Report meets iPhone

I was just catching up on some reading over at the Creating Passionate Users blog and came across a post on the iPhone.

Specifically, one of the little details about the iPhone UI, which is that it used traditional animation techniques (like stretch and squash, momentum, etc) to make the UI feel "alive". You can see a demo of the interface from Apple here, if you haven't seen it already.

As part of the post, the author linked to a demo of a Minority Report style interface that was demonstrated in Feb 2006 that just blows my mind (video here).

In general, I'm a future optimist. For the most part people who are all complaining about how bad things are getting really have little clue as to just how bad things really used to be.

This is not to say anything is or ever will be perfect, but in general engineers want to make things better, and parents want their kids to have better lives than they do, and even pessimists have their place - their complaining and nitpicking, as toxic as it may be to themselves and those around them, also tends to fuel debugging and improvements - like the body defending itself against adversity by becoming stronger and more resilient.

Personally, I'm really looking forward to being able to use this type of interface, but I think some of the pessimists are correct - it's a special purpose interface, not a general one. I'm not even sure if there IS an interface that is ideal for everything.

Do you have a laptop? Ever try to use the laptop mousepad to do something that was obviously intended for a normal mouse, like dragging a highlight box? It's almost painful.

On the flip side, ever try to use a mouse to type? Ouch. Same goes for trying to use touch screens for typing - if you did it long enough, you'd have sore wrists for sure. You also have the issue of precision with touch screens - people with shaky hands need not apply in the future, I guess.

No, I think the future UI isn't a case of the multitouch screen replacing everything (though I'm sure someone will try it, just to see), but rather a combination of different input devices for different jobs.

One of the things I strongly disagree with a certain famous UI expert over is his contention that the designer should control the user experience, and if the user needs to use a site map or search feature, then the UI designer has made a mistake.

I don't believe in the "one UI fits all" scenario.

This applies to almost everything - Why can't I use a mouse AND a keyboard? BTW, there were people arguing about exactly that when mice came out - they insisted the mouse was a useless fad - I was there during conversations about it!

A user often has a different vision of what your website or product will help them with than you do. Get used to it - people are not clones.

My father likes to use a ball mouse, where you control the mouse with your thumb. I hate it. But for him, it works great. Which one of us is wrong? I would argue neither - we just have different needs.

For many years, I used a pen tablet for graphics arts applications - drawing with a pen was far more natural than a mouse or (god forbid) keyboard.

Let's not forget other UI devices such as voice command, joysticks, and wireless gesture-based controllers like in the Wii.

Most people don't remember my beloved Amiga, (much less my first computer, the C-64)but even many Amigans didn't know that the 'Guru Meditation Error" (the Amiga version of Microsoft's BSOD - Blue Screen of Death) was a reference to a control pad that you sat on, guru-style, just like a flying carpet, and controlled certain games by leaning in the desired direction.

People have been experimenting with user interfaces for a very long time, and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come. Almost every new UI is touted by some over-excited geek to be the best possible UI ever made. They have always been wrong.

The reason? I think the reason is that there is often too much emphasis on the "I" (interface) in UI, and not as much on the "U" (user). This is natural, since you can control the I, but not the U, as anyone who has ever done usability testing with normal people can tell you.

The UI of the future

I'm not much of a futurist, but at this point I would hazard a guess that the perfect UI is one that adapts itself to the user AT THE TIME AND CONTEXT OF USE than to any one specific interface.

I don't think that switching interfaces is as difficult for users as some UI designers seem to think it is. Even if I've been using a hammer all day, I'm not likely to get all confused because I run into a bolt and suddenly need a wrench.

I'm more likely to get confused if you try to make me use the hammer on the bolt for the purposes of "simplifying the UI".

I think where the problem comes in is when UI designers try to create a multifunction hammer that is also a wrench, or screwdriver, or whatever. This seems like a good idea (and in some cases it is), but it can be taken too far very easily.

Let ME decide what interface to use - whether we are talking about an ID (input device) or a website design. Just give me a choice.

I'm sure that I'd love playing with a multitouch screen for lots of things, especially for organizing and sorting, as well as some viewing. But then I'd be wiping the screen of greasy fingerprints all day, so I might not do it was often as you might think. Every try wiping greasy fingerprints off a touch screen? Ever launch 4 programs and accidently delete a file while doing it? Yeah, me too.

If I have a lot of files, I might want to use the keyboard and run a quick filter to sort the files instead, or maybe use the mouse to drag things around, or a voice system than moves on command.

Why restrict my choices to one? Perhaps I'll start off using one interface because it's comfortable, then switch as I become more proficient. I've seen that happen a lot - different UI for different levels of skill within the same program - "simple" and "advanced" mode, for example.

When my kids first started to use computers, they had trouble understanding how moving the mouse also made the cursor on the screen move. This is actually a skill that needs to be developed - it's not instinct. Now, if they had been able to point at what they wanted, then that would have been perfect!

Why not offer that? As your users change tasks of become more sophisticated in their use, let them use different UI devices or designs to let them adapt and change.

In general, the most "realistic" interfaces appeal the most to new users. As the user becomes more and more adept at using a system, they become able to think about it in more and more abstract terms. At that point, they are ready to begin using more powerful, but more abstract, user interfaces.

There is nothing wrong with this - indeed, I think it's natural and useful.

The iPhone is very cool. It's easy to use and "feels" real. That's it's draw, especially to people who are not used to phones being anything other than something to talk into.

But over time, I can definitely see people wanting to do a series of quick tasks without looking at all the eye-candy getting in the way. At that point, they are a power user and the simplistic "real" interface won't allow them to do the increasingly abstract things they want to do.

I would argue that this also applies to all sorts of user interfaces - the very same user will change preferred interfaces over time, as they become more and more familiar with your product or site. If your site offers the things these power users (who by that time may be your best customers) want, then let them use an interface designed for them, not for novices.

Your interface should grow with your users, not restrict them or control them.

Myself, I'm looking forward to growing my company and training my people to the point where I can afford the perfect UI - "Fred, do all that work on my desk - I'm going golfing". ;)


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