Monday, January 31, 2011

Interactive Interactions

While we are certainly not the only animals on the planet to do so, human beings are perhaps best known as users of tools.  It is this evolving relationship with these devices we have incorporated into our lives that helps to defines us.  How we choose to interact with the world around us colors our cultural perspective.  With what we choose to interact is also clearly dependent on our environment.  In short, we are what we do (…apologies to Jung for pulling that quote completely out of context).
In the last 20 years computers and the internet have become invaluable tools.  They are nearly inextricable from our daily live.  They are also head-scratchingly difficult to use.  Part of this is due to the open nature of what computing is capable of in a world where nearly all media has been touched by digitization.  But it’s also because computers haven’t been around long enough to enjoy the benefits of numerous iterative design cycles.  Consider how many revisions mundane objects like toothbrushes and toasters have gone through.   Compared to the lowly toothbrush, computers have been with us for an insignificant spec of time.  And for most of that time, computers have been the stomping grounds of engineers and technicians.
Until recently, little thought has gone into how normal everyday people would interact with computers.  If we can agree that the notion of “interaction” is akin to a kind of conversation with the tools we use, and “interface” as the method in which we convey our message, working with a computer is a bit like an English person trying to talk to a  French person through a Japanese interpreter.  It’s the interface that’s getting in the way.
Fortunately, we have been making great strides over that last 5 years or so.   The smartphone revolution is a great example of that.  Earlier mobile phones had tons of functionality shrouded by a mostly impenetrable interface.   Sure, my Dad could probably figure out how to create and maintain a contact list on his old phone, but the learning curve was not worth the effort need to achieve a desirable result.  His old analog address book worked just as well.  However, the moment I handed him my iPhone, he almost instinctively understood how to use it.  Interactions with the device nearly always provided instant and logical feedback.  He was learning how to talk to the device, but it was so painless he didn’t even realize he was learning.  It just seemed natural.
Although we’ve come a long way in a short time, there are still computerized devices in our homes that are inexplicably complicated to use.  Tivo is the most easy and elegant DVR interface ever invented.  Why is my Comcast DVR counterintuitive in nearly every way?  Is it because it’s just barely good enough to be functional for 90% of the consumers?  I would predict that in the near future there will be some interface standardization initiated by what we’ve seen in smartphones.  Devices will adopt context sensitive screens instead of modal buttons.
More importantly, I suspect there will be huge changes in interaction, and by that I’m mean the flow of the conversation.  A lot of our interactions with these machines are what I would categorize as “call and response”.   We tell the machine to do something; it does it, spits out the result, and waits for the next input.   We are already seeing devices anticipating our needs based on past interactions.  This kind of adaptive interaction will become more prominent in the future.  Our dialogue with our tools will become more participatory and less authoritarian.