"user interface" entries

Thinking with things

Something is lost when we limit interactions to pressing or clicking — our bodies are capable of so much more.

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Editor’s note: we’re running a series of five excerpts from our forthcoming book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a compilation of works by industry experts in areas of user experience design related to genomics, robotics, the Internet of Things, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

In this excerpt, author Stephen Anderson addresses the importance of embodied learning and stresses that those concepts need to extend to the way we design and interact with our increasingly connected environment, noting that the digital devices today are painfully unaware of our many human capabilities.


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Stephen Anderson, author, consultant, and creator of the Mental Notes card deck.

You may wonder, “why should we care about tangible computing?” Isn’t interacting with our fingers or through devices such as a mouse or touchscreens sufficient? In a world constrained by costs and resources, isn’t it preferable to ship interactive software, that can be easily replicated and doesn’t take up physical space? If you look at how media has shifted from vinyl records to cassette tapes to compact discs and finally digital files, isn’t this the direction that everything is headed?

Where learning and understanding is required, I’d argue no. And a definite no wherever young children are involved. Jean Piaget established four stages of learning (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations), and argued that children “learn best from concrete activities.” This work was preceded by John Dewey, who emphasized first-hand learning experiences. Other child psychologists, such as Jerome Bruner and Zoltán Dienes, have built on these “constructivist” ideas, creating materials used to facilitate learning. In a review of studies on the use of manipulatives in the classroom, Marilyn Suydam and Jon Higgins concluded in their 1976 report “Review and Synthesis of Studies of Activity-Based Approaches to Mathematics Teaching” that “studies at every grade level support the importance and use of manipulative materials.”

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The lingering seduction of the page

As we begin to design for the Internet of Things, we'll need to expand our IA approach — and our toolbox.

In an earlier post in this series, I examined the articulatory relationship between information architecture and user interface design, and argued that the tools that have emerged for constructing information architectures on the web will only get us so far when it comes to expressing information systems across diverse digital touchpoints. Here, I want to look more closely at these traditional web IA tools in order to tease out two things: (1) ways we might rely on these tools moving forward, and (2) ways we’ll need to expand our approach to IA as we design for the Internet of Things.

First stop: the library

Information Architecture for the World Wide WebThe seminal text for Information Architecture as it is practiced in the design of online information environments is Peter Morville’s and Louis Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, affectionately known as “The Polar Bear Book.”

First published in 1998, The Polar Bear Book gave a name and a clear, effective methodology to a set of practices many designers and developers working on the web had already begun to encounter. Morville and Rosenfeld are both trained as professional librarians and were able to draw on this time-tested field in order to sort through many of the new information challenges coming out of the rapidly expanding web.

If we look at IA as two faces of the same coin, The Polar Bear Book focuses on the largely top-down “Internet Librarian” side of information design. The other side of the coin approaches the problems posed by data from the bottom up. In Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, David Weinberger argues that the fundamental problem of the “second order” (think “card catalogue”) organization typical of library sciences-informed approaches is that they fail to recognize the key differentiator of digital information: that it can exist in multiple locations at once, without any single location being the “home” position. Weinberger argues that in the “third order” of digital information practices, “understanding is metaknowledge.” For Weinberger, “we understand something when we see how the pieces fit together.”

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Architecture, design, and the connected environment

Emerging IoT technologies require a carefully considered approach to integration, implementation, and user interface.

Just when it seems we’re starting to get our heads around the mobile revolution, another design challenge has risen up fiercer and larger right behind it: the Internet of Things. The rise in popularity of “wearables” and the growing activity around NFC and Bluetooth LE technologies are pushing the Internet of Things increasingly closer to the mainstream consumer market. Just as some challenges of mobile computing were pointedly addressed by responsive web design and adaptive content, we must carefully evaluate our approach to integration, implementation, and interface in this emerging context if we hope to see it become an enriching part people’s daily lives (and not just another source of anger and frustration).

It is with this goal in mind that I would like to offer a series of posts as one starting point for a conversation about user interface design, user experience design, and information architecture for connected environments. I’ll begin by discussing the functional relationship between user interface design and information architecture, and by drawing out some implications of this relationship for user experience as a whole. Read more…

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Google Glass and the Future

I just read a Forbes article about Glass, talking about the split between those who are “sure that it is the future of technology, and others who think society will push back against the technology.”

I don’t see this as a dichotomy (and, to be fair, I’m not sure that the author does either). I expect to see both, and I’d like to think a bit more about what these two apparently opposing sides mean.

Push back is inevitable. I hope there’s a significant push back, and that it has some results. Not because I’m a Glass naysayer, but because we, as technology users, are abused so often, and push back so weakly, that it’s not funny. Facebook does something outrageous; a few technorati whine; they add option 1023 to their current highly intertwined 1022 privacy options that have been designed so they can’t be understood or used effectively; and sooner or later, it all dies down. A hundred fifty users have left Facebook, and half a million more have joined. When Apple puts another brick in their walled garden, a few dozen users (myself included) bitch and moan, but does anyone leave? Personally, I’m tired of getting warnings whenever I install software that doesn’t come from the Apple Store (I’ve used the Store exactly twice), and I absolutely expect that a not-too-distant version of OS X won’t allow me to install software from “untrusted” sources, including software I’ve written. Will there be push back? Probably. Will it be effective? I don’t know; if things go as they are now, I doubt it.

There will be push back against Glass; and that’s a good thing. I think Google, of all the companies out there, is most likely to listen and respond positively. I say that partly because of efforts like the Data Liberation Front, and partly because Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that he finds many aspects of Glass creepy. But going beyond Glass: As a community of users, we need to empower ourselves to push back. We need to be able to push back effectively against Google, but more so against Apple, Facebook, and many other abusers of our data, rather than passively accept the latest intrusion as an inevitability. If Glass does nothing more than teach users that they can push back, and teach large corporations how to respond constructively, it will have accomplished much.

Is Glass the future? Yes; at least, something like Glass is part of the future. As a species, we’re not very good at putting our inventions back into the box. About three years ago, there was a big uptick in interest in augmented reality. You probably remember: Wikitude, Layar, and the rest. You installed those apps on your phone. They’re still there. You never use them (at least, I don’t). The problem with consumer-grade AR up until now has been that it was sort of awkward walking around looking at things through your phone’s screen. (Commercial AR–heads-up displays and the like–is a completely different ball game.) Glass is the first attempt at broadly useful platform for consumer AR; it’s a game changer.

Could Glass fail? Sure; I know more failed startups than I can count where the engineers did something really cool, and when they released it, the public said “what is that, and why do you think we’d want it?” Google certainly isn’t immune from that disease, which is endemic to an engineering-driven culture; just think back to Wave. I won’t deny that Google might shelve Glass if they consider unproductive, as they’ve shelved many popular applications. But I believe that Google is playing long-ball here, and thinking far beyond 2014 or 2015. In a conversation about Bitcoin last week, I said that I doubt it will be around in 20 years. But I’m certain we will have some kind of distributed digital currency, and that currency will probably look a lot like Bitcoin. Glass is the same. I have no doubt that something like Glass is part of our future. It’s a first, tentative, and very necessary step into a new generation of user interfaces, a new way of interacting with computing systems and integrating them into our world. We probably won’t wear devices around on our glasses; it may well be surgically implanted. But the future doesn’t happen if you only talk about hypothetical possibilities. Building the future requires concrete innovation, building inconvenient and “creepy” devices that nevertheless point to the next step. And it requires people pushing back against that innovation, to help developers figure out what they really need to build.

Glass will be part of our future, though probably not in its current form. And push back from users will play an essential role in defining the form it will eventually take.

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Buttons were an inspired UI hack, but now we've got better options

Buttons were an inspired UI hack, but now we've got better options

Josh Clark on the future of touch and other types of UI.

Global Moxie founder and "Tapworthy" author Josh Clark discusses touch UIs and the future of computer interaction. He believes touch is just the beginning; we need to also think about content in the context of speech, facial expression and physical gestures.

Comments: 9

UI is becoming an "embodied" model

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

In the following interview, AOL director of consumer experience Christian Crumlish discusses the design opportunities that arise from new technologies and interfaces.

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Video pick: The inevitable merging of Kinect and "Minority Report"

Video pick: The inevitable merging of Kinect and "Minority Report"

Kinect + open drivers + MIT = the future of UI.

A marriage of Kinect and the creativity of MIT has led to this: The first baby steps toward "Minority Report"-inspired interfaces.

Comments: 3
7 areas beyond gaming where Kinect could play a role

7 areas beyond gaming where Kinect could play a role

How Kinect could apply to art, education, health and other domains.

Microsoft's Kinect has implications that go beyond gaming. From medicine to learning to participatory art, Alex Howard considers ways Kinect's interface could shift our computing-based interactions.

Comments: 13
Why does Facebook keep redesigning?

Why does Facebook keep redesigning?

E. A. Vander Veer, author of "Facebook: The Missing Manual," weighs in on Facebook's pattern of reinvention

Facebook is rolling out yet another redesign, which will surely inflame a portion of its committed user base. I checked in with E. A. Vander Veer, author of "Facebook: The Missing Manual," to get her take on Facebook's redesign frequency, its dominant position, and the willingness of users to "retrain" themselves.

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User interfaces for AR

User interfaces for AR

There is a risk that talk about haptic interfaces and heads up displays for AR will seem like just hype, and certain industry participants fear that over promising and under-delivering could send AR in the same direction as Virtual Reality went a decade ago: into oblivion. That said, new ways of interacting with digital data on the real world are possible and not hype to those who work on them. To appreciate the full potential of new user interaction for AR, a test drive is valuable.

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