10 reasons why we need a new generation of ubiquitous user interfaces

Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.
Nicholas Negroponte, Founder of MIT Media Lab

The goal of this post is to point out some of the shortcomings of “graphical user interfaces” (in particular touchscreens like our smartphone) with the intention of giving food for thought on what a new generation of user interfaces could look or feel like.

1. Complexity

Over the past 35 years, personal computers and mobile devices have merged an incredible number of physical products and services into a single generic device.

This change brought huge benefits in terms of productivity but also drawbacks in terms of usability. It required the introduction of menus and grahical imitations of real things, without shape and feel to naturally differentiate them.

Things were no-longer unambiguous. Graphical user interfaces require your focus and attention, your willingness to learn and to adopt to structures and ever-changing menus. This is a problem for many people, especially when it comes to extremely simple, creative or mission-critical tasks where you need your attention elsewhere.

2. Speed

Complexity and menus also mean that it takes longer for you to get to where you want to go. And sometimes, time is a deal breaker.

Imagine yourself in a conversation with a friend. You’re really involved in the dialogue and your friend mentions a book you should read. Stopping the conversation to pull out your smartphone and browse through apps to take a simple note completely interrupts the social flow and conversation.

Turning on a light on a smartphone currently takes 10 to 15 steps which translates to about 10–15 seconds including loading times. Imagine yourself waiting inside of a hallway waiting for 15 seconds to see the light come on.

3. Cognitive Load

Spreading cognitive load onto multiple senses means that you can do things without having to think about them. Trained musicians for example have the ability to solemnly focus on music rather than the instrument because they use all of their senses to figure out what they are doing with their instrument.

The smartphone reduces our senses to vision and a heavily reduced version of haptics. That’s why you can never talk to somebody and use your smartphone (Although I have tried hundreds of times unsuccessfully). It means that you mentally have to drop anything your doing, a conversation, a task or a creative process. The ability to focus on “the music rather than the instrument” is a crucial skill and human need.

4. Distraction

The PC was developed with the intention of revolutionizing education and work. With time, things like shopping and social relationships were added. The adoption of the smartphone, a miniaturized version of the PC, meant that you were now carrying all of these applications into your home and and your bedroom, including pop-up notifications and constant availability.

Contrary to the common belief, multitasking actually decreases our productivity by up to 40%.

Here is a great talk on the topic of distraction and “slow tech” by Joe Kraus from google ventures.

5. Psychological Impact

  • On average, people look at screens 7 hours per day.
  • On average, people check their smartphones 27 times per day.
  • 79% of people reach for their smartphone within 5 minutes of waking up.

What this essentially means is that we’re filling every single gap in our lives with some form of external input, be it games, news or text messages. This leads to the fact that 84% of people say that they could not go a single day without their cellphones. People are increasingly showing symptoms of withdrawal, stress or lack of reflection and creativity. There are a even a growing number of clinics that treat things like “smartphone addiction”.
1 in 3 people would rather give up sex than their smartphone.

The disability to just “be” dramatically decreases the ability to be creative, a process which requires time for reflection.

6. Social Impact

A smartphone is designed for one person. Not only in the way you use it but also in the way the screen is designed. The screen is only visible from a small angle so that you cannot (or want to) share what you’re doing or have other people participate.

People are getting tired of this. There is a growing number of people who get very offended if you pull out your smartphone at the dinner table or during a conversation. It shows that you’re not sharing your undivided attention with the people in front of you and that you’re actually somewhere else.

There are even a number of slowly growing movements like this facebook group.

7. Design

The PC was designed for people sitting at a desk.
The smartphone was designed to fit in your pocket.

Social networking for example happens a lot more on smartphones than on tablets because you can do it quickly on the subway or on your break. Online Shopping on the other hand happens on tablets, simply because of it’s screen size although the smartphone and the tablet are almost identical from a technological perspective. People prefer devices which are designed for a specific situation, even if this choice was not made consciously.

Smartphones are designed to meet the most common denominator, to meet the needs that satisfy the biggest number of people. This approach makes absolute sense but does not mean it is also the best design for all people or situations. With dropping hardware cost and simple ways of manufacturing locally, we now have the opportunity to design interfaces which are truly designed for specific user needs, be it in the cold winter of Siberia, an emergency room or your home; all places that require a very specific user interface.

8. Accessibility

Most of us never think about this but many people actually have problems using a smartphone. The size of the screen and particular the buttons require good sight and motoric control through hands.

Yet, there are 300 million people worldwide that are visually impaired and even more people that are physically handicapped.

9. User Experience

People love real things. Things that you can smell, taste, feel and touch. Clicking a virtually represented button behind glass will never feel real.

Having a conversation through video chat is nothing compared to the awareness, the warmth and even the smell of a person next to you.

People are looking for a way to interact with technology that simply feels real and natural and that adresses all human senses like touching a pen or the sound, smell and touch of turning a page in a newly printed book.
People want to regain a certain user experience and quality in life that is being lost through touch screens.

10. Limitation of human abilities

Germans don’t have a sense of humor?

Humans have more then 5 senses. Depending on what scientist you ask, people have at least 10 different senses with different organs to perceive external stimuli. Some of the lesser known senses are the awareness of relative position of body parts, the position in three dimensional space or the sense of equilibrium.

A screen limits us to vision, sound and a “light” version of haptics.

We can do better than that.

There is a new generation of user interfaces that are just around the corner and that are addressing these problems. These include speech recognition, tangible interfaces or augmented reality glasses.

In one of the following posts, I will discuss these technologies in detail and what impact they will have on our life.

Please feel free to discuss or share this post.

My name is Tobias Eichenwald.
I care about hardware startups, local manufacturing and user experience.

I’m one of the co-founders of Senic and we build tangible interfaces. Currently we focus on your smart home.

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