We are a world who has become obsessed with the graphic user interface. What began as a research project at PARC became a revolution in personal computing. But it didn’t stop there. With the commercialisation of the web came the idea of website design. That instead of a website being a simple text document it was a graphic user interface in its own right.
More recently we have seen an explosion of mobile applications. Again, each of these apps as their own graphic user interface.
But things have gone even further. Everything from our TV to our refrigerator now seems to have a graphic user interface built in.
Unfortunately, the graphic user interface does have its limitations.
The limitations of the graphic user interface
For a start the idea of a graphic user interface is not particularly natural. Sure, things have become more intuitive since the arrival of touch screens. But much of the time we are still using the graphical user interface with a mouse or trackpad. These are at best a compromise and at worst downright awkward.
Even when using a touchscreen the average graphic user interface can feel awkward. Especially in comparison with the natural flow of a conversation or using physical objects.
Then there is the fact that we use so many different graphic user interfaces. Every website we visit and every app we launch presents us with different systems we have to learn.
Mobile device manufacturers such as Apple and Google have recognised this problem. They attempt to mitigate it by establishing design standards but these can only go so far. The graphic user interface is often complex and specific to the application or site you are using. It is never going to match the simplicity and consistency of something like reading a book.
Finally, the graphic user interface demands full attention. You have to be both looking at it and using your hands to interact with it. This limits what else you can be doing at the same time. For example a graphic user interface is far from ideal when driving a car or exercising.
But as I said at the beginning of this article, the world is changing. We are seeing new methods of interacting with applications beyond the graphic user interface.
Beyond the graphic user interface
The most obvious evolution of the user interface is voice interaction. Services such as Siri, Cortona and Google allow us to control apps with voice command.
Although still in their infancy they have a lot of potential to revolutionise how we use apps. Voice driven interfaces do not need us to either see or touch them. At least not in principle. In reality much of the information they return is still in visual format. But that is changing and you can expect voice commands to become far more widespread before long.
Of course speaking out loud is not always appropriate. This means we will never be able to rely on speech command as our primary interface. But there is a related technology that is a real alternative.
Since Facebook messenger started supporting chatbots there’s been a lot of buzz around them. The idea that we can interact with apps as if we were having a conversation with a person is appealing. It is more natural than a graphic user interface. But creating a natural feeling conversation is hard, and the current chat bots fail.
That said, in time this will change. In some situations the chatbots will become an alternative to the graphic user interface. In particular I see them having a lot of potential in helping users find a specific fact. All without the need to navigate through pages of information.
Finally, when looking beyond the graphic user interface we have to mention sensors. Chatbots and speech apps seek to replace the graphic user interface. But sensors have the potential to reduce our need to interact with any user interface.
For example you can now unlock your car with a mobile app. But it would be possible for your car to unlock itself when it senses your mobile device nearby. This does away the need for any form of interaction.
So we can expect the role of the graphic user interface to become less over the coming years. But that does not mean it will ever go away. What we can expect is that it will change as new technology enhances its capability.
The graphic user interface will change
The best example of the evolution of the graphic user interface is virtual reality. Unless you have used VR on something like the HTC Vive, it is hard to appreciate how powerful it is. Its immersive nature provides unparalleled opportunities for improving our interaction with technology. The potential for gaming alone is immense. But there are also some interesting uses in medical and creative professions. For example architects are beginning to use it in their work.
That said, virtual reality is never going to be our primary graphic user interface. It doesn’t matter how small and light the glasses become. At the end of the day virtual reality prevents you from seeing or hearing your surroundings. This is going to limit its use.
Augmented reality has a lot more potential for widespread use. It is easy to imagine a world where technology layers information over the top of what we see. This will present some unique design challenges. We will need to balance the need for legibility with unobstructed vision.
For the public to adopt augmented reality there are going to have to be improvements in the hardware. The majority wouldn’t wear something like Google glasses. Even Bluetooth headsets are only acceptable while driving for most people. This shows that technology has to be hidden or fashionable to receive widespread adoption. But with companies such as Apple working on augmented reality we can expect improvements. It will be the graphic user interface challenges that will be more difficult.
But the most significant evolutions in the graphic user interface will be invisible. Big data and artificial intelligence will have a huge impact on the graphic user interface.
These technologies will allow the interfaces we design to be more intelligent and adaptive. I expect interfaces that customise themselves around the behaviour of individual users.
We will see functionality that users often engage with float to the top. Meanwhile less used functionality will fade into the background. We will also see interfaces adapting themselves to the users personalise data. In fact, the potential to customise the user interface is almost endless.
All this challenges our perception of what a user interface designer is.
Redefine the role of designer
If the user interface adapts to user needs, what does the designer actually design? If there is no graphic user interface is there still a need for a designer?
I am convinced that the role of designer will still be essential. There will still be a need for people who focus on the point of interaction between a user and technology. But this role will change in two fundamental ways.
First, the nature of these interfaces will change. As designers we will no longer be pushing pixels. Rather we will be considering all kinds of interactions from voice to text.
Second, we will no longer be able to work alone. Our working relationship with developers will become evermore integrated. We will need to work with them to craft these complex interactions. We won’t be able to throws design comps over the wall to developers any longer.
You can respond to this in one of two ways. You can see this as the end of your role as a user interface designer. This might lead you to bury your head in the sand and pretend these changes will not happening or to run away screaming! Or you can see it as an exciting opportunity. That as we try and integrate these new technologies into our lives we will need the help of designers. I believe that we live in an exciting time to be designers, if only we are willing to broaden our view of what that means.