UI is becoming an "embodied" model

Mobile, real-time, and physical make design tough and interesting.

The digital use case used to focus on a single person huddled over a keyboard, but now designers must understand how different interfaces and technologies influence a variety of user experiences. A single set of wireframes just won’t cut it anymore.

In the following interview, Christian Crumlish (@mediajunkie), director of consumer experience at AOL and a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo, discusses the unique challenges and opportunities designers now face.


What are the most important aspects of current UI research?

Christian CrumlishChristian Crumlish: The most interesting area right now is the intersection of the mobile, social, and real-time aspects with the physical, gestural, kinetic, and haptic interfaces. User interface is moving from the periphery of our senses — aside from a heavy reliance on the visual — to a much more embodied model where we will be able to use the full somatic sensory apparatus of our bodies to interact with systems and networks.

When you combine that with ubiquity, location-awareness, and a portable social graph, you’re starting to meld the virtual and the physical. That should lead to all kinds of breakthroughs that are hard to picture in detail from our vantage today.

What challenges does cloud computing create for UI?

Christian Crumlish: The challenges largely go beyond the UI level and tend to be most interesting when talking about the broader user experience. Working with the cloud raises challenges around syncing, caching, and continuity across multiple modes and entry points. More and more, designers in this space need to look at the holistic experience and then explore how best to express it in various contexts, with different mediating devices.

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2011, being held March 28-31, will examine key pieces of the digital economy and the ways you can use important ideas for your own success.

Save 20% on registration with the code WEBSF11RAD

Your Web 2.0 Expo session has an unusual title: “Start Using UX as a Weapon.” How can a
“weaponized” user experience be put to work?

Christian Crumlish: UX can be used as a weapon in several ways:

  • Differentiating a product from its commodified, ho-hum competitors.
  • Allow the design/development team to maintain focus on the experiences of real people using the product.
  • Incorporating the problem-solving, ideation, visualizing, communication, and innovation techniques of the design tradition.
  • Integrating disparate aspects of a complex experience.

What sites, apps or platforms do you find to have the most impressive or effective interfaces?

Christian Crumlish: I think the wider realm of UX writ large offers much more potential for breakthrough experiences than a focus on the details of specific user interfaces. That’s not to say that an elegant design and a well laid out screen aren’t still a huge part of making a great experience.

That said, some of the sites, apps, and platforms we love that have distinguished themselves by providing for great user experiences include Dropbox, Hipmunk, Mint, Tumblr, Feedly, Etsy, and Zappos.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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