I worry about Interfaces.

“I worry about Interfaces”.. I guess I could say this after being for a while in a state of utter discomfort with narrower definitions of Interfaces.  Such a state has often brought me to say that “I’m not going to do UI design at all”.

But now I’ve come to believing that the definition or rather an understanding of User Interface is a problem. Most of the UI designers deal with Interface design at levels of digital interfaces, Web applications, Mobile and Tablet apps. What they deliver is a set of Wire-frames and UI screens depicting task flows and user interactions. And perhaps that’s where the idea of User Interface design seems to cease. This cease of imagination is often coupled with a bit of bitterness of doing the same job again and again. It is precisely here that the industry and the UI designers need to expand the understanding of User Interfaces. Probably with an expansion of the definition industry will be able to find diverse clients and could discover newer sectors. On the other hand it would for sure bring some satisfaction to a UI designer’s job.

So what this expanded notion of User Interface is? I would introduce you to Bruce Balentine here. I’m bringing him in this discussion not because what he explains as Interface is music to ears but more because it encompasses a larger picture of Interfaces. He says that interfaces can be thought of a layer sandwiched between two different and incoherent systems. These systems are incoherent to the extent that it would be unimaginable for these systems to communicate without the presence of an Interface layer. Thus, in a sense, an interface layer is a double sided tape that sticks to one system at one side and to the other system at another side. It exists on the condition that it can facilitate better communication between the systems at either sides. It ought to have connections for each system. Maintaining this differential while supporting communication between two incoherent systems at either sides is the primary function of the Interface. This is quite insightful indeed. Imagine a washing machine where at one end is a complex circuitry of electric motor, driving belts, washer and drier and at other end is a human agent. In an absence of  Interface i.e. a series of buttons, knobs, scales and readers; it would be almost impossible for a human  agent to operate a washing machine. The interface layer carefully hides one system from another but assists communication between them. With such a lucid but flexible idea of Interfaces one can say that we have always been designing interfaces if not the products. Most of the things that we see around now, ranging from transportation, household appliances, safety appliances to numerous other discrete products are simply Interfaces in one way or the other. Isn’t it?

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HCI Design Resources

For months I have been trying to locate a good reference list for HCI related issues. I have found few and I am planning to keep this post as a list of these references.

1. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human Computer Interaction by Ben Shneiderman. The book as well its website are one of the most important reads in HCI. From its website, one could get to an exhaustive HCI Bibliography.

. Here is a list of HCI design conferences along with impact factor and other details.

A $2 app – fun unlimited

For the past two days we were working towards creating an iPhone app for the hearing impaired users. The application will enable an iPhone to be used as a hearing aid. Figures show that people with partial or complete loss of hearing includes a large number of elderly population. We thus choose elderly as the target user group for this application.

We try to suggest  a design solution at three different levels:

1. At the level of information architecture: We decided to keep the application essentially a simple one. We had to drop some of the advanced features for the pilot release. The application currently enables this user group to hear the surrounding sounds with an amplification. However users have also been provided with an ability to record different sounds which they consider as noise and then use this application to cancel these sounds as noise filters. Advanced features like managing noise profiles according to different usage scenarios are not taken into consideration at this stage.

2. At the level of usability: A short user study revealed that elderly users often find themselves lost while trying to understand visual clues like icons or graphic based buttons. Rather they prefer a step wise approach by carefully reading the text based instructions. Now the challenge was to come with action buttons with explicit text messages while staying crisp and precise. We also considered resizing the default “active or hit” areas for these buttons to be of a little larger size.

3. At the level of visual design: An apparent strategy of creating a visual contrast is followed. Besides we use iPhone library for creating visual design for this UI.

We plan to improve this application and are looking forward for any user feedback. The application is currently priced at $2. By-n- large as a short project, it was quite a fun for everyone in the team 🙂

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