10 December 2011

On Interfaces

Two movies, both depicting law enforcement in the future, have me thinking about the way in which we interact with electronics these days and where we’re headed with interface design. I begin by saying that the movies have it mostly wrong. In Timecop, released in 1994 and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the cars of the future (in this case 2004) resemble airplane cockpits that require numerous switches to be toggled before a voice command is given to the self-driving vehicle. I laughed as I imagined myself performing this exhausting routine at every stop along my Sunday errand run. We should be grateful that cars today turn themselves on when you approach them. At least they got the voice command part right. Simplicity is key.

Even though this car drives itself, it is still a pain in the ass.

So is elegance, but it is by far the most difficult element of interface design to pair with simplicity. In the 2002 film Minority Report, the famous scene where Tom Cruise manipulates a reactive wrap-around display with graceful hand gestures inspired many interface designers over the next several years to actualize something similar. Out of that thread was spun intermediate incarnations that made their way to TED talks, as well as consumer products like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect. And I’m here to say that, despite the sales figures and sense of elegance that these interfaces project, they are not simple.


I received a Nintendo Wii for my birthday roughly a year after it was released. I was anxious to experience what everyone was drooling over, so I bought games like Metroid Prime and Mario Kart. I was sorely disappointed. The act of holding up my hand and waving it around seemed almost draconian when I considered it against the alternative of needing only to wiggle my fingers across a keypad or to flick my wrist with a mouse in my hand. The act of aiming in Metroid Prime became exhausting and I quickly switched to button-based steering in Mario Kart as it was far more precise than actually turning the controller like a steering wheel. While the Wii remote inspired many new types of games that were enjoyable when played with a full range of motion, many players eventually found ways to minimize their physical exertion to properly manipulate the gyroscope inside it. The Wii craze was almost like a dance that goes along to a popular song; entertaining and fun for those who enjoyed the physical element, but unnecessary for experiencing a game. And the Kinect is more of the same.

Am I the only one who finds this less fun than using a controller?

Ultimately, I don’t want to wave my hand to manipulate my computer display -- I want to give a thought command. I’ll settle for just moving fingers, though. The interface in Minority Report was quite impressive visually, but using it would be exhausting. If I had to lift my arms and hold them out while arranging files on my computer, I would spend considerably less time on it. My girlfriend might like that, but I don’t.

She just wanted to forward a funny cartoon to her grandchildren.

Simplicity, therefore, is a minimal amount of effort required to perform tasks. But let’s get back to elegance. I see it as a sort of aesthetic flow associated with using an interface. Abundant elegance is why the Minority Report scene was so influential, especially when you consider the score it was set to (Franz Schubert's Symphony #8 in B Minor, an homage to the late Stanley Kubrick). But elegance is empty without simplicity in the world of interface design. As much as I detest the company and its former CEO, Apple has set the standard for simplicity and elegance in two markets; smart phones and laptop computers.

Politics and cost aside, there is an elegance to Apple’s smart phone iOS that its main competitor Android fails to grasp. The essence lies in movements; both by the graphical elements that the operating system displays and by the fingers that manipulate them. Android feels like it apologizes for the lack of buttons and tactile response, while the iOS embraces the flat glass screen as a tactile element in itself, relying more on swipes and multi-touch gestures than finger taps. Having used both, I find myself helplessly enslaved by the horrible politics surrounding the iPhone simply because I cannot part with the superior interface design. First world problems, I know.

Meanwhile, the multi-touch trackpad that Apple uses on all of its laptops has no competition. Though many people have preferences in using either Mac OS X or Windows, both systems are negligibly different to a normal user. Once again, cost and politics aside (as well as PC gaming tendencies), the process of using an Apple laptop is both simple and elegant, miles ahead of any Windows-based interface. And that includes touch-screens (once again, this requires too much movement for such simple tasks).

This is one of only two reasons to buy a Mac.

Surprisingly, Apple has failed to improve its desktop computing interface beyond the standard of the classic Windows-based PC, and in some cases has regressed. While laptops are more likely to be used for simple tasks and general productivity, desktop computers provide a more potentially demanding experience when it comes to interface design. A trackpad might be suitable for a small screen with no more than a couple windows open at any one time, but a large, high-resolution monitor with many elements on display and graphical programs requiring to-the-pixel accuracy is too much for mere touch. This is why a mouse is still superior for desktop computing and gaming. I will even add that while a Mac user may see their mouse’s lack of a button (or a second button, for that matter) as more simple, it is not an appropriate or useful “optimization” to the design of a mouse. Using a PC mouse with multiple buttons allows the user to approach the future of computing with mere finger flicks and maximum control with a single appendage.

As the reader, you’re free to disagree with me on any of these points. These are the aspects of interfaces that I think are important, but which interface you enjoy most is a personal thing. That’s why they still make manual transmissions for cars. That’s why they have a handset extension for mobile phones. But interfaces will always succeed by allowing the user to do more with less effort and by appealing to their sense of style at the same time.

I found this picture of you disagreeing with me.