The Best Interface is an Enchanted Object

The Best Interface is an Enchanted Object

A few weeks ago, I posted a review of the recent book on building connected products from O’Reilly. I also have a few more books on the shelf here that touch on this area from a slightly different angle.

The Best Interface Is No Interface

nointerface

I became aware of Golden Krishna, the author of this book when I attended his panel criticizing the use of dropdowns at SXSW 2016. The content in this book predates that panel by a few years, originally presented as a keynote at SXSW 2013.

The basic thesis of the book is that it’s variously easy, lazy, and sloppy to always try to address the problems we’re solving through technology by slapping a screen-based interface on top of things. Early in the book he gives the example of a keyless entry system advertised by BMW, that requires the following 13 steps to occur between a user walking up to her car and actually opening the door:

  1. Walk up to my car
  2. Pull out my smartphone
  3. Wake up my phone
  4. Unlock my phone
  5. Exit my last opened app
  6. Exit my last opened group
  7. Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app
  8. Tap the app icon
  9. Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action
  10. Make a guess with the menu and tap “Control”
  11. Tap the Unlock button
  12. Slide the slider to unlock
  13. Physically open the car door (my goal)

Compare that with the obviously better sequence

  1. Walk up to my car
  2. Physically open the car door (my goal)

…which is how things behave on recent Tesla models (with the added coolness of the door handles changing from being completely recessed into the body until someone tries to open them).

The book’s 21 chapters thoroughly outline the problem, three general principles to follow in addressing the problem (“Embrace Typical Processes Instead of Screens”, “Leverage Computers Instead of Serving Them”, and “Adapt to Individuals”), and some of the challenges that make this approach to design not quite so easy.

Enchanted Objects

Mining a similar vein is David Rose’s 2014 book Enchanted Objects:

enchantedobjects

Some believe the future will look like more of the same—more smartphones, tablets, screens embedded in every conceivable surface. David Rose has a different vision: technology that atomizes, combining itself with the objects that make up the very fabric of daily living. The Enchanted Objects of fairy tales and science fiction will enter real life.

The opening paragraph of the book’s prologue could almost have been extracted from somewhere in ‘The Best Interface is No Interface’:

I have a recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass … its face filled with tiny, inscrutible icons that now define and control our lives.

These two books work together as great complements; however, Rose’s focus on building Enchanted objects alters the tone of things quite a bit. Recurring themes and references take that idea of Enchantment quite literally, as he looks at fictional magical artifacts from the Harry Potter universe.

Besides many case studies of examples that illustrate his premises, he provides a pair of frameworks for thinking about systems that can be used as a designer of enchanted objects:

Six Human Drives

In these chapters, Rose develops dialectics between fictional enchanted objects (e.g., Dorothy’s Silver/Ruby slippers) and an analogous real one (in this case, the Nike+ shoes). He delineates six human drives that can be augmented or addressed through enchanted objects:

  1. Omniscience
  2. Telepathy
  3. Safekeeping
  4. Immortality
  5. Teleportation
  6. Expression

The Design of Enchantment

This set of chapters discusses opportunities and techniques for engaging more of our users’ senses through system design, rather than requiring the user to focus on a glass slab. He calls for a careful use of ‘subtle and subliminal phenomena’. He calls these out as the ‘Seven Abilities of Enchantment’:

  1. Glanceability
  2. Gestureability
  3. Affordability
  4. Wearability
  5. Indestructability
  6. Usability
  7. Loveability

Optimism and Humanism

Especially when considered as a pair, even though there’s much in these books that’s deeply and sometimes harshly critical of products that have been widely lauded, I see these books as extremely optimisitic visions of the future than not only should be, but that actually can be.

I’m not sure which will prove to be more difficult in practice:

  • Learning to put these kinds of approaches and principles into practice when desiging systems
  • Convincing the stakeholders on our projects that we can use these ideas to build better systems that adapt to their human users instead of continuing to require the opposite.

One could say that the ideas behind these ideas go back a long time, popping up in books like Donald Norman’s classic “The Design of Everyday Things”, “User Centered System Design”, or Jef Raskin’s “The Humane Interface,” but those were all written in an era when the idea of tiny battery-powered computing devices that are orders of magnitude more powerful than desktop/workstation machines of the era was still purely speculative.

The future is finally getting here, let’s try not to mess this part of it up.

Music and Design – a love story

Music and Design – a love story

It was August 1, 1981.

I sat on the hotel room floor, surrounded by guitars, keyboards, and gadgets, doodling on a complimentary Holiday Inn notepad. Dad tinkered with a motherboard as his soldering iron glowed, delicately balanced on the edge of an ashtray. The smell of pork chops, rice and beans wafted through the air as mom worked her magic on our portable double burner stove. I sat on the floor, glued to the television. It was that very moment the iconic M came to life and made its beautiful debut. (more…)

Designing Connected Products

Designing Connected Products

A Book Review & Call to Arms

We’re pretty clearly on the cusp of an era where much of what we know about building software systems is wrong. As devices become smarter and networked (or dumber and networked, which may end up being equally important or more important in the long run), as people who design and develop the software systems that monitor, control, or otherwise interact with these new kinds of devices, we all need to acquire different sets of skills that are currently rare, and apply our old habits and knowledge in different ways than we’re used to. (more…)

CSS Zentangle

CSS Zentangle

Thailand, elephants and Micron pens

Making friends in Thailand.After returning from a three month journey through Southeast Asia, I’ve been doodling elephants. Lots and lots of zentangle elephants. I attribute this to the set of Micron pens I bought in Thailand, and wonder if these fine writing instruments are even capable of drawing patternless, non-tropical animals. Testing that theory hardly appeals to me since I’m still in elephant mode. So instead, I decided to challenge myself in other ways by creating the world’s first purely HTML/CSS “hachyderm”.

See what I did there?  (more…)

Everything, Including the Sync!

Everything, Including the Sync!

A couple of years ago, I developed an ‘operational support system’ for anaesthesiologists
working in the OR. Other than the main goal of enhancing Patient Safety by helping the
docs remember to do all the things they need to do before, during and after a surgery, the
requirements for the product were quite vague. This wasn’t particularly surprising to me
as this concept, though not new, had never been implemented as a computer system that could
be used in operating rooms and while certainly ‘technical’ to some degree, my customer was
not versed in software development and really didn’t have many expectations beyond the
implementation of his core concept. Anyway, with that comforting level of detail, I set out
to design a system that would both meet the main goal while at the same time being able to
accommodate the inevitable “oh yeah, we should be able to do, too – that won’t take
too long, will it?”.

(more…)