Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

Posting My Homework

I ended up writing my reflection on the future of user-centered design rather like a blog post. Since I have to use most of my writing energies for school these days, posting my homework is probably my best chance for having new blog content!

My Apple bias is about to show through again, but it’s because I really think Apple is one of very few companies getting it really right on a really large scale. iPhone was the first successful device that really, truly put the user before the technology. Plenty of stuff that was possible (copy and paste, third-party development, &c.) wasn’t done, because it would have compromised the user experience. Heaps of legacy tech that people thought was crucial (hardware keyboard, stylus, removable battery) was instead completely jettisoned to make way for a better experience. The point of all this Apple fanboying is that it seems obvious to me that iPhone and iPad are the beginning of a new generation of experiences that eschew traditionprioritize the experience, and exhibit good taste.

Eschewing tradition is interesting to consider in light of the Sears & Jacko chapter. It’s pretty fascinating to see people pontificating about the future of software design in the couple of years just before the iPhone was unveiled. Much of the speculation in these interviews focused on improvements in existing, familiar devices like cameras, music players, or PDAs — things that fewer and fewer people need to carry around anymore, thanks to iPhone-style smartphones. Of course we will have fewer devices, and of course they will get smaller. Stephanidis mentions “specialized devices designed specifically for everyday activities”, but it seems to me that more and more of your interaction with technology will happen through a single device. Not touchscreens and dedicated, disparate UIs on every appliance, but instead apps that talk to those appliances, all on one phone, all ahdering to the same UI guidelines. Of course, this doesn’t mean that iPhones are our future — iPhones are great for now, but a future of “pictures under glass” (as described in Bret Victor’s marvelous rant) is a short-sighted one. Hopefully something much more tactile, more visceral, and more present is our future.

Prioritizing the experience is harder than it sounds, because it deals with cooperation across disciplines that is still pretty rare to find. In the case of iPhone, the software and hardware engineering went out of its way to avoid taxing the system so that gestural interactions would never, ever skip or bog down  — thinking about which led me to compose this tweet: “Technology that does not constantly push its limits will not constantly remind you of its limits. Instead it feels magic. Restraint wins.” Companies that understand prioritizing the experience will get more common. And the ACM article makes it clear that it will be harder and harder to get away with bad UX. Customer satisfaction depends on it; people no longer have to settle for crappy experiences. Coming from a company that prioritizes good design, someone still trying to argue against HCDE practices seems to be saying “wait a minute, are you trying to tell me that we need to make our products good?”

Exhibiting good taste is my interpretation of the thrust of the Norman article. (I should mention here that I think Don Norman is one of the coolest people of all time.) Don’t mindlessly implement whatever users ask for. Don’t assume that the user has a far better idea than your team does of how the software ought to behave. Instead, put your expertise and experience to work and offer them something great. Let them adapt to it a bit, rather than trying to create something that will adapt to them every time. As I have put it in my talks on designing for iOS, “sometimes it is more thoughtful to ask people to learn how your app works than ask them to decide how your app works.”