This post was originally written and appeared on the Envy Labs blog here.
The lot of us self-proclaimed “nerds” in the tech environment can still feel experiential echoes of the moment Tom Cruise donned the “glove” to begin a tech-dance with the G-Speak Spatial Operating Environment in Spielberg’s Minority Report. It was the stuff dreams were made of—whizzing and whirling, manipulating a pulsing, breathing interface with tactile ferocity. John Underkoffler and his team gave legs to a ghost that previously only existed in thought and desire.
Science Fiction finally felt like Scientific History.
But film is one thing, and real life is another. Science Fiction has long been an advocate for progressing the discussion on design and interaction. In architecture, fashion, and technology, sci-fi has shaped our future by lending a hand with the building blocks of actualization. Yet the future we were promised seems all but nearby.
With the announcement of the G-Speak technology at TED2010, this felt more tangible than ever. Following hot in pursuit was the Xbox Kinect, leveraging a similar interactive architecture to allow manipulation of the onscreen UI. And while this digital conversation is bound by the restrictive confines of a television screen, its very commercial existence feels like the beginning of a new dialogue with technology on what’s achievable.
In theory, we’re wading into new territory. In truth, we’re taking our baggage with us.
The challenges we’re working to overcome as designers are diverse, and among them is a battle with our fictional history. We’re adapting the far-reaching, distinctive interfaces of the cinematic realm into usable products for a still-human world. Science Fiction has always been granted the advantage of developing UIs for a universe that embraces a cold, robotic utopia, but designers are not afforded that luxury. Most of us aren’t creating for bio-mechanical interaction where a stream of information as large as the titanic is processed on a dime in the user’s brain. We have increased our bandwidth of information intake by learned user interface intuition, but the limitations still exist.
Even more ironically, our screens are getting smaller!
We’re building products for humans, and while that fact seems to be a hot phrase to use, the implications of building products for this market should seem natural to us. Yet, in a number of cases, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We use words like “intuitive”, putting stock in the learned and natural behaviors of our audience to navigate our products; yet we’re packaging interaction guidelines to teach people how to bookmark, highlight, and turn pages. Over time, our hope is that these motor functions will become second nature.
While we’re still learning to create products for this new chapter in interaction design, let’s take the time to develop systems that work. Apple may have won their patent war, but let’s be mindful that this is arena is far from victorious. For all of their research and brand success, they’re still just a student of the new digital age like all of us. All of the answers aren’t contained within OS X, and they’re not all inside of Metro. These are the beginnings of a great dialogue that will last for a long time. You, as much as I, stand the chance to develop a more intuitive standard for this new relationship with interaction design—and the browser is only the beginning.
We’re not done discovering yet.
Not even close.
As designers, it’s easy to get looped into this idea that style trumps substance. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’d all fight this tooth and nail—arguing for the latter, but actions speak louder than words. And what’s released speaks tenfold for what’s in idealized practice. That’s not to say we’re not actively rethinking interaction design, I think we are, but it seems like we’re getting caught up in where that interaction meets tangible tactility.
This isn’t so much a dismissal of all things skeumorphic, as that’s a conversation that’s been chest-beaten by the most vocal of enthusiasts and skeptics, but more a call to reevaluate the interactions we’re building into our products. Whether you add a two-pixel top light highlight, drop a shadow on your buttons, or keep them completely flat, is a conversation for another commentary. I’m speaking to the way we interact with these piles of pixels on the screen. Is it necessary to swipe a “lever” of sorts? Is it crucial to your information architecture to quite literally have to “fold” an image to peek what’s behind it, or are we just getting tied up in a pissing contest to see who can make the most life-like evocation of our everyday interactions.
We’re forcing our medium to bow to our creative whims.
That’s not to say they can’t be beautiful or won’t catch someone’s eye the first few times, they will and do. But with repeated use, once the wow factor has dissolved into dutiful repetition, these kitschy techniques have a tendency to lose their ostentatious awe.
I’m not here to draw a line in the sand. This is an encouragement to keep pushing, keep thinking. Apple has made incredible progress in the world of interaction design, but it’s still not perfect. They’ve patent protected their work, their research and their results, but that should feel like less of a wall and more a catalyst for innovation.
There are better, more intuitive solutions out there.
Let’s find them.