Humans’ Last Stand Against User Interfaces

UIs cannot get anymore basic as we may begin to cater Fisher Price users in future.

A Fool’s Errand for Two Text Strings

I had run a fool’s errand for an hour at the hospital this morning trying to find the whereabouts of my best friend.

I was pointed by receptionists after receptionists in a giant merry-go-round: first to the 6th floor, then the 5th, the 4th, the 3rd, back to the 6th, then 4th again, etc. Their guidance are uninformative, useless, and at worst, misleading and potential life threatening — they kept pointing me to the wrong floors with guesses based on what I had already told them and the outdated information in their heads — which isn’t that different from what a street psychic does to rip off vulnerable pedestrians. Not only it wears me out in frustration, my helplessness is also indirectly contributing to their burnout.

And yes, I essentially spent an hour and a half trying to look for two Text Strings: 1) Which room she is at, and 2) her current status.

When we look holistically at the patient logistics and management system of the hospital as one integrated whole, the receptionists are the abstracted basic user interface layer of the computer system of the hospital. The harder and more tedious parts of the data collection, searching, tracking and backup were already taken care of by the computer servers. What the receptionists need to do is to interpret a user input (my question for the whereabouts of my friend in this case), to query the system accordingly, and to output it back to the user as spoken word.

Unfortunately, of the 7 or so receptionists and nurses I had encountered, they can’t even manage to learn or bother to use the basic search functions of the system. (Ctrl+F anyone? It’s web based!) They went through papers and papers, binders and binders, windows and windows, and yet still could not find her whereabouts. And when one of them actually could find her (by scanning her name line by line on the screen), the location information was outdated — she wasn’t at the same room anymore.

If the receptionists - the supposedly trained operators of these advanced UIs of the hospital patient management system - cannot use the system properly, what’s the point?

The Middlemen Between Computers and Users

Between the advanced UI of the patient management system and its ultimate client-side users (i.e. patients themselves and their relatives and friends) is this abstraction layer powered by human receptionists. It’s only a matter of time such middlemen will be streamlined.

For instance, let’s take a look at restaurants. The waiters of a restaurant serve as the basic human-powered UI of the restaurant transaction system, which takes care of taking orders, sending them to the chefs, and collecting money from customers, as well as the physical distribution of food products from the kitchen to the customer.

We had already seen a slow trend over the past decade of computers eliminating and integrating more of what the waiters do. It’s not unusual for fast food restaurants these days to skip the cashiers entirely to avoid paying for the increased minimum wage, and to replace them with a touchscreen kiosk. Many users, who can understand basic touchscreen UIs, would happily skip to avoid dealing with the poor attitudes of the human cashiers.

We had also seen similar advancements on apps and websites, most notably on the chat based UI that are powered by a combination of artificial intelligence and humans. Instead of having all the options available for users to make their own intelligent* decisions for getting their health insurances, apps like Oscar skip all of the Advanced UI, and present the users only the barebone information and choices, except the nitty grity parts required by law.

And who needs a Best Buy when it’s neither efficient enough as Amazon, nor friendly enough as a mom and pop store?

What is Human Anyway?

What I foresee is that slowly we will be divided into two groups of users — those who are fine with basic abstracted UIs, and those who has more knowledge in this particular subject matter and would go through the advanced UIs.

For instance, when one needs to edit a photo, if they cannot see the difference between their advanced editing on Photoshop compared to the automated basic UI of Meitu BeautyCam, there would be no reason for one to load up an advanced UI in order to save time and effort. And in this case, the BeautyCam app not only had replaced Photoshop, the advanced UI, for many, it also indirectly had replaced the previous basic UIs, such as a CVS photo printer counter, a photobooth, or a photographer studio’s dark room.

These human powered UIs are not, and will probably not, be completely eliminated. Just like our fetish with vinyl records, a user may desire interacting with a human powered UI, exactly because they are looking for something a basic UI or advanced computer UI cannot easily provide: Human interaction.

In my original example, the job of the receptionists of the hospital is not only to interpret user’s input and query accordingly, but also to provide something uniquely and beneficially human, such as: Hospitality, Empathy and Morality.

However, since they either are desensitized by the menial and trivial tasks, or simply have little empathy to share (due to poor education on emotional expression), they are unfit for even providing the human side of the task, i.e. being human!

At its worst, humans may also be contributing the negative aspects of having humans as part of a system, such as: Discrimination, Desensitization and Brutality.

And from the stone cold perspective of the machines, humans increasingly serve no value to the computers in improving efficiency and user friendliness. And if we were to follow this mentality and judge ourselves purely from the standpoint of the machines, we will also find ourselves humans pretty useless and meaningless as well. Is efficiency and user friendliness all we really want from life?

To have humans remain relevant as a vital part of an experience requires our better understanding of what it means to be human, and the problem is… we aren’t even that good at it! Years of mechanization of the society had left most of us unable to express emotions thoughtfully and sympathetically. Furthermore, with advancements of AIs in the past few years, machines are increasingly capable of providing a false sense of empathy better than most humans can. A well scripted AI can become as affecting as a well written Oscar winning screenplay, in which many humans are far from capable of being without professional therapist and writer training.

What can us puny humans do?

The Case for the UX Designer

I cannot provide a good answer to where humans would fit in this future world where everything is automated by computer, especially if I keep doing my job well as a UX designer. The only worthy competitor of a well designed app is a well trained customer service team.

Essentially, the UX designer’s job is to help machines provide a replicable sense of humanity - to ensure experiences where users will feel comfort every time they use the machine.

Maybe it’s time we think harder and discover what it really means to be human. Maybe now that ultimate efficiency is becoming more and more achievable by machines, we need to serve new purposes other than increasing efficiency. Maybe morality can be provided by humans, not only so reduced to the person who pulls the trigger to shoot from a fully automated military drone. There needs to be a balance within this cyborg - is the exoskeleton helping the human walk, or is the human walking the exoskeleton? Maybe we can design to make humans more involved as a positive component? Maybe as designers we need to help users embrace the uncertainty and messiness of dealing with other humans.

Two text strings are simply two text strings in the perspective of the machines. It is the friendship between me and my best string that gives meaning to them.

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