Where is user experience and interface design going? To answer that, let's take brief look at the journey through history.
Way back in 1725 ... Wait what?! Yes, you can trace the history of computer interaction back that far with the first application of machine automation which used long bands of perforated tape to control looms used for making textiles. This was refined into perforated or punched cards that were chained together to give machines instructions in the early 1800s. It became the way humans interacted with computers until the 1960s, and it continued into the 1980s.
Sit at a machine punching holes into cards, go to the computer and feed it that stack of cards, wait for cards to be processed. There is not much interaction or connection to what you are actually doing with the computer, as well as being time consuming and unintuitive.
Keypunches gave way to keyboards and we were able to directly input commands into computer, but this was still very limiting since it required knowing the language of the computer. Progress really picks up when video displays were attached to computers allowing for rapid feedback and new types of input devices like the light pen and mouse. Combined with the development of graphical user interfaces, users could then directly manipulate objects on screen.
This progression started to create a more natural way for people to interact with computers. By the 1980s, largely due to computers like the Macintosh, these revelations and declining hardware costs resulted in widespread adoption of computers as household appliances.
Looking back through these milestones, it becomes more clear what we are doing to increase usability of an increasingly complex technology; reducing friction between natural human learning and how computers process information internally.
This trend towards more personal interactions has continued at much faster pace in recent years with microchip technology allowing for smaller and more powerful devices. This also means complexity is increasing and the software we use can do more than ever. The challenge we face today is balancing this with usability.
The age of true personal computing is in full swing. Everyone has their own computer, and they keep it with them in their pocket all the time. Access is on-demand from anywhere and tailored to each person individually. We also have a new way to interact – the added sense of touch for controlling the interface, which is a huge step beyond the mouse.
Physical interaction is more intimate and intuitive, adding to the personal experience we have with our devices. As technical limits and boundaries are surpassed, and software is ubiquitous in our everyday lives, it has also become easier to develop tech products, but harder to make one well.
To understand complex software and computer systems we need abstractions in user interface because our brains (mental model) work differently than computers (system model). A user interface that is clean and easy to use is great, but we can do better. Continuing down the path of more personal computer interactions, we can engage users by giving our products a voice and life-like qualities. The next step in design is adding personality to a product so users have more attachment to it. I call this the personified interface abstraction.
This can not only be used to enhance an interface, but to inform an entire product experience and allow people to relate to the product in a more natural, familiar and human way. When developing a product, define a personality that can carry through the entire experience. This will help much of the design including the tone of voice and visual aesthetics of your product.
Including movement in the product's design goes a long way in defining a personality and also lets you visually communicate things that are happening without adding clutter to the screen. Most things that are alive move right? By doing this you are abstracting away the robotic, machine-like attributes of the device and software. The more you do this the more the actual interface goes away and the user gets immersed in the product. It becomes less of a computer interaction as users get engaged emotionally.
Think about friction points like error messages and how they can be addressed to reduce frustration. When a user gets frustrated they get pulled out of the experience, but if they are involved emotionally and your product shows empathy, they are more likely to forgive.
Using a personified interface abstraction can make a product easier to learn, easier to forgive and easier to trust which is exactly the relationship you want users to have with your product. Create a relationship between your product and your customer, and they will have more desire to interact with and use the product.
The future of computing is total immersion and artificial intelligence. It is fairly easy to see this trajectory now. Take into account everything that we have looked at so far: Personalization, direct interaction, emotional connection. There are current developments in virtual reality that look promising. Devices like Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, Microsoft HoloLens and the mountain of other VR related products that are being made for video games. But what I see is a new type of interface for any type of tech product.
Being able to visualize an interface in three dimensions can lead to amazing new experiences. Maybe software won't be a thing on a screen anymore, but a place we visit. Artificial intelligence is also well underway and we can see this in "no UI" products like Siri, Google Now and Cortana that you interact with solely with your voice.
As software products become more human-like and hardware products become more attached to us, the day may come when it is hard to distinguish a person from a computer. User interfaces will become less and less a detached experience, but until then we should focus on making them a better experience.