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The World Is Our Interface: Design Beyond The Screen

Published on 08/20/2017 | Technology

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Irina Papuc

Director of SEO. Director of SEO


We are in an exciting age of design: Welcome to a new era in history where our bodies, cars, bedrooms, heaters, streets and just about everything is beginning to become an interface.

This article will present a number of exciting technologies and various interfaces to interact with them, ranging from touch to VR, as well as take a historical perspective on interactions with man-made objects that have evolved with us to where we are.

For simplicity’s sake, I like to group human interaction with the environment and technology into 4 ages:

The age of tools

The age of the machine

The age of software

The age of the self

The Age Of Tools

We used primitive objects and symbols to communicate.

Humans began communicating with symbolic representations carved into any surface. Hieroglyphics were one of the initial ways that humans started communicating, and it was highly symbolic. This symbolism would later develop into art, writing, documentation and story-telling. We can even argue that we have come full circle and are using the symbols on our keyboards to communicate subtleties in communication beyond words, even if they are silly.

From cave art to emojis: The whole world is a UI canvas, so make good use of it!

The tools that we used to communicate became more and more sophisticated, resulting in things still widely used such as pens.

The Age Of Machines

When hardware was the interface.

The industrial revolution placed emphasis on productivity. Welcome to the age of the machine, where we built objects at scale to help our lives become simpler.

One example of this is the invention of the typewriter in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes. We begun tapping physical keys to make words, still using our hands, but with help from the typewriter as a replacement of the pen. It helped create a consistent and effective format that could be easily adopted as well as save us time.

The drawback, however, was that we needed to learn how to type. We were mass producing machines and the power shifted to them. Despite designing the hardware as the interface, we still had to learn how to use the machines. This is symbolic of many machines created at the time.

The Age Of Software

Learned skills from using hardware become metaphors to teach us how to use software.

When software needed an interface, UI designers looked to existing hardware and behaviour to make it easy for us to learn how to use it. For example we looked back to the typewriter to learn how to type on a screen. The typewriter was used to inspire the keyboard to make it easier for us to know what to do. We had already learned to type, so the natural progression was to begin interacting with screens.

We see this same transition with our smartphone keypads looking like mini versions of the very same keyboards and typewriters. Adorable and useful. As we began to touch, we began to define a completely new way of interacting with our environment.

UI design evolution is influenced by hardware and intuitiveness. A good UI design sticks to familiarity and irons out the learning curve.

Skeuomorphism is another example of making the two dimensional screen look like the three dimensional world to help users understand how they should interact with the interface. Designers created interfaces that were already familiar by depicting things like controls of a radio or mixer in audio interfaces. Apple famously led this trend under the direction of Steve Jobs. It wasn’t until Jonathan Ive became more powerful at Apple that skeuomorphic design slowly evolved into flat design, punctuated by the release of iOS7 in 2013. We were ready to make the leap to less literal cues and could now appreciate the simplicity of a reduced interface. The current iOS Human Interface Guidelines actively encourage the shift from “Bezels, gradients, and drop shadows sometimes lead to heavier UI elements” with a “focus on the content to let the UI play a supporting role.”

Material design also shifts towards different representation of the third dimension by giving the entire canvas depth, as opposed the the individual UI elements as represented in skeuomorphism. Material design depicts the “surfaces and edges of the material provide visual cues that are grounded in reality. The use of familiar tactile attributes helps users quickly understand affordances. The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other.”

Touch Is Human-centric

On why touch worked.

With the rise of the smartphone, we taught ourselves all kinds of funny gestures for the novelty and , of course because it was cool to use and to discover even secret stuff on our devices. We learned the difference between a pinch and a tap and a long tap, and invented more gestures than we can keep up with.

We started expanding and contracting as a way of zooming in and out. This behaviour became so natural that I have witnessed grown men try and zoom in on physical maps.

Touch works because it is intuitive. You see babies working tablet devices faster than their grandparents these days, simply because we are born to explore things with our fingers. It’s innate and reminds us of where we started at the beginning of communication.

Touch Came At A Price

And the user experience often suffered.

We have become like children in a candy shop, wanting to touch everything in sight, and along the way, we made up some pretty obscure gestures that made it nearly impossible to find stuff.

That’s because we hid stuff.

Touch interfaces came at a price. UI designers were forced to hide a lot of important stuff behind the sleek app façade.

We hid a lot of the main user interface features. A major part of the problem was competition between Android and iOS, where iOS initially led the way and significantly reduced its Human Interaction Guidelines. The simplicity looked beautiful, but we were just hiding the ugly or complicated stuff for later, often making interfaces more difficult to use. Android emulated a lot of the worst things Apple implemented and it wasn’t until Material Design was introduced that there were even consistencies in Android design at all. The myriad of device sizes and display aspect ratios didn’t help, either.

We also forgot about consistency.

A swipe on iOS is used to read an email, delete an email, archive an email, or playfully connecting with my next Tinder match, depending on the app and the context. As designers, we cling to extensive onboarding sequences simply to show users what to do.

This article is originally posted at Toptal

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