“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?
Mentioning before my readers today is work on Conversations by H. Paul Grice, a philosopher and a psychologist. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists Grice’s work as of special relevance to linguistics and artificial intelligence. The other source to get closer to H. Paul Grice is Media Equation, a book on how people treat new media by Bryan Reeves and Clifford Nass. We shall be referring to Media Equation while noting Grice’s work on conversations. Not because his work could not be read on its own but more because Media Equation seems to contextualize it better in connection with the design of interfaces.
The basic premise is the realization that people assign mindless attributes to interactive technology products like Computers. People follow social rules while interacting with these products. One of these social rules is Politeness which states that human beings are, in general, polite with each other in their day-to-day interactions. On these threads continues the mention of Grice’s Maxims. Grice believed that conversation is an activity where people try to help each other. And, the activity sustains polite interaction by following four basic principles: Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Clarity. We shall be expanding on relevance in a separate paragraph as it seems to carry more weight and insights for interface designers. Lets take a look at Quality, Quantity and Clarity first. In Gricean terms, Quality would mean that speakers, participating in a conversation, should say things which they identify as true. Anything untrue could risk violating the idea of conversation. Quantity would mean that speakers should contribute appropriate amount of content to the conversation- not too much or too little. Clarity would mean that a contribution by a speaker is expected to be as less obscure as possible. One must thrive to keep ambiguity out of the content and to ensure that there is singularity in the meaning of the content.
Relevance, it is here that we consider the purpose of the conversation. Also, if we treat interfaces as medium of Communication with the users, it makes sense to be aware of the purpose of this communication. Speakers in a conversation should try contributing content which could be mapped to the purpose of the conversation. We have often come across interfaces where there are action items with no task flow to follow. Users find themselves clicking on these hot spots and noticing that nothing actually is happening. Thus interface designers should try designing interfaces which does not offer anything that could not be met. It is then nice to either disable the buttons (or take them out from the interface) which could not offer functionality at the moment. Clifford and Reeves further expands the meaning of purpose of the conversation by including designer’s sensibility to the user goals. Designers need to consider all different goals of the users which they want to accomplish using the interfaces. They could take the liberty of prioritizing these goals but an explicit mention of these goals would help them developing an overall picture of the interface.
This is all for now. I will report more readings from the related topics soon.