On Interface Design

Lately I’ve been thinking about the way we interact with computers. The concept of the keyboard and mouse is such an abstract idea, that I can understand why it’s daunting to new users. While neural interfaces may be a bit far into the future, I think we can find a happy medium between the abstract concepts in use today and the ultimate in the future of computing.

I think that current multi-touch technology (see iPhone or Microsoft Surface) is definitely a step in the right direction. Being able to manipulate objects onscreen using your most recognizable input devices (i.e. fingers) is the way to go for current technology.

One major problem I have with multi-touch interfaces is that they still use archaic concepts for manipulating objects. Instead of creating a system from the ground up, it’s basically a retrofit for a concept that’s been around since the 1950s.

While I understand the concepts and why they work with people’s minds, they were created originally to provide a basis for knowledge workers to switch from physical pen-and-paper systems. The concept of files, folders and the desktop all stem from this original set of concepts.

Think of the Children
Have you ever tried to teach a child how to use a modern operating system? A child goes through life learning things in an organic manner that reflects the inner workings of the human mind.

How do you teach a child, who has interacted with the world in a direct manner with immediate results, to learn this whole new world view set in a virtual environment? Obviously, I’ve been asking myself this question while thinking about how to introduce my 2 year old to computers in the future. Maybe by the time he’s ready, we’ll all be using whiz-bang multi-touch interfaces, and the idea will be moot.

Now, that said, of course I’m going to teach him about “modern” GUI concepts, and sit him down in front of a Linux or Mac OS X environment (I couldn’t imagine the damage he’d be able to do with Windows), and show him the importance of these concepts, as well as the abilities of the command line.

What to do?
It’s important to teach our children to draw a line between virtual worlds and the real world, but why does there have to be such a steep learning curve?

Where the “modern” GUI and even the multi-touch interfaces fall flat is in their ability to relate to real-world objects and situations.

What we need in interface design is a completely new set of concepts and core interactions. Microsoft Surface and the iPhone may be steps in the right direction, but as I stated before, they are still built with the idea that you have once used these concepts in a normal keyboard-and-mouse context.

Interaction with virtual objects should be handled just as they are with physical objects to start with. Our brains are not confined to learning in strict folder-and-file systems. Our brains are extremely complex and capable relationship-driven machines.

More relationships, fewer abstract concepts.
This is where I see post-modern computer interfaces going over the next 10 years. I realise that this kind of approach would require some high system requirements, but technology is growing at an astounding rate, and will surely be able to deal with the requirements of such a system in the near future.

Computers should, in the future, be based on natural concepts, rather than abstract concepts that take time to learn.

Just as the modern computer is based on abstract concepts, today’s learning systems are also based on age-old “tricks” to get our children to learn things that are needed in life. Learning systems should be more organic, teaching through association rather than repetition.

There is a great deal of research and reading materials that take on these concepts, but they are far from being adopted as a core structure of our learning systems.

This is something that’s really piqued my interest lately, and I would love to go into some field or venture that takes on some or all of these concepts.