Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

How User Interfaces Are Still Failing Us, part i

Microcosmographia vii: How User Interfaces Are Still Failing Us, part i

Microcosmographia is a newsletter thing about honestly trying to understand design and humanity.

How about that technology? Always getting better in miraculous new ways, while somehow remaining frustrating enough that those of us who make it suspect we’re doing it all wrong. Of course all design is made of compromises, and it’s absurd to think that we could be getting it perfectly right all the time. But I do think it’s valuable to pay attention to where we’re putting our efforts, and what our priorities are at bigger scales than individual products and experiences.

I collected a few areas I’d been hoping for years that we would have pretty well nailed down by now, but for whatever reason we haven’t. There are twelve of them at the moment, and here’s my favorite one to start.

Bright, backlit screens.

We’ve been making computery consumer products for about forty years now. All along, pretty much all of their displays have worked by shooting bright light directly into your eyes, without consideration for what an ordinary object in the same conditions would look like. Much of that light is centered around a cool white at 6500°, much cooler than any light bulb you’d want in your house and wayyy cooler than the sun. And thus, in the pursuit of high-tech perfection, we spend all day and night staring at glowy rectangles that don’t resemble anything our brains ever expect to see at any time of day. High-contrast contours, like black text on a white background, get a nervous electric halo. That pure white background looks not like a flat, quiet page, but like a scrambling, shimmering field of rainbow particles. (At least that’s how it looks to me, when I really pay attention to what I’m seeing, rather than to what I have come to learn that it is supposed to represent.)

This is all great for creating a pure, consistent, vibrant image regardless of the ambient conditions. Sometimes that’s what you want, like when watching a movie, shopping for yarn, or proofing photographs. But most of the time? If you’re reading, writing, keeping in touch with friends, studying, or doing most of the other things we use these screens for? Why should it look so drastically different from everything else in the place where you are, where the lighting is either the sun or one of a variety of styles of light bulb? Is part of the reason that these devices feel so unhealthy to use is because they’re visually so indifferent to their surroundings, like they’re not even part of the same world?

Modern devices do have ambient light sensors that at least half-heartedly adjust the brightness a bit, so that using an iPhone in a dark room is merely painful rather than blinding. Some apps offer dark or Solarized color themes, but it’s a huge undertaking on the developer’s part. And you can use Flux to approximate a healthy color temperature based on the time of day, but only on the desktop.

(I don’t know if part of the answer is in hardware — to move away from LCDs and OLEDs and other backlit technologies, towards better e-ink or something. It’s all just photons, right? So it seems that we should be able to make existing displays emit the photons your eye expects to see given your surroundings. I’d be fascinated to hear if there is some well-known technical limitation that has kept us from improving this on the hardware side.)

But it seems that much better ambient conditions awareness and consideration for the user’s eyes and psychological health should be the default. Ideally, a digital display should be indistinguishable from a beautifully-printed page in the same room. With some minimum on the brightness level, so that you can use it in a completely darkened place, of course. And a studio mode for maximal color consistency and accuracy.

It’s not just a comfort issue; it’s a health issue and an accessibility issue. How many people’s well-being would be improved if that considerate approach was the default at the system level, rather than something that requires installing special software and making manual adjustments? How much insomnia, nervousness, and disconnection from our surroundings would be saved?

Thank You And Be Well

This is going to be a fun series to keep working on. I don’t have a recommendation for your consideration this time, because I have spent quite enough time writing already! Have a lovely day