Interfaces for People, Not Products

By Jonathan Follett

Published: October 23, 2006

“Without cooperation among designers of digital products, the proliferation of complex information systems can lead to unintended consequences.”

Without cooperation among designers of digital products, the proliferation of complex information systems can lead to unintended consequences—chiefly user fatigue, frustration, and the confusion that results from dealing with a host of variant user interfaces.

We can describe nearly every aspect of human life as a system—from the biology of our bodies to the houses in which we live, the documents we read, and the maps we navigate. Our lives comprise many systems, and information technology is making our interactions with these systems increasingly complex. Until recently, most people knew little about many of the systems they encountered and relied on specialists to help them navigate them. We have relied on doctors to understand how our bodies work, accountants to understand how our finances work, and contractors to understand how our homes work.

The Double-Edged Sword: The Informed Amateur As Expert Partner

“The digitizing of information, the rapid rise of digital information systems, and increased access to those systems by a broad range of people have challenged the way in which we look at specialists and the roles they play.”

The digitizing of information, the rapid rise of digital information systems, and increased access to those systems by a broad range of people have challenged the way in which we look at specialists and the roles they play. In many industries, specialists are no longer information gatekeepers, but rather system negotiators. For example, in the travel industry, agents provide value not by finding the best deals—which you can do yourself online—but by ensuring your trip goes smoothly. If you’re stuck at an airport after missing a connecting flight, you have someone to call.

The consumer and the specialist are now more likely to work in partnership. While we may never hold a scalpel during surgery, we may—through online research—find treatment options to discuss with our doctor. Families who deal with long courses of medical treatment for particular diseases often find they are better informed about recent studies and discoveries than their doctors, who don’t always have time to keep up with their reading. While we may never fill out our tax forms, we may strive to become better informed about tax breaks that may potentially benefit us. And while we’re unlikely to build our own homes, we might make suggestions about earth-friendly materials or alternative power sources to our contractors. Though specialized knowledge is far from universally accessible, the trend is toward information sharing. All this access to formerly proprietary or at least hard-to-find data means we are increasingly better informed.

Yet this access to information is a double-edged sword. For example, we have a dizzying array of choices among global vendors for products, investments, and travel. We are also increasingly responsible for managing everything from our bank accounts to our credit, our insurance plans to our retirement plans, our health care to our education. This responsibility is time-consuming—and while we are no longer amateurs, we’re not really experts either. Herein lies a great challenge for information designers, who must format data to aid understanding, decision-making, and efficient task completion.

The Problem of Reinventing the Wheel

“Our current model of interaction with digital systems requires us to learn a separate system for each different type of transaction we perform.”

It seems like every system has its own proprietary method of information display: the user interface for managing your 401(k) is different from the one you use to manage your home and auto insurance, which is different still from your online bank’s bill-paying system, which is a separate user interface from that which lets you view your credit card charges and unrelated to the user interface for your stock-trading account. Our current model of interaction with digital systems requires us to learn a separate system for each different type of transaction we perform. While this may have been a natural way for our digital systems to evolve, we have reached a point of diminishing returns for our digital experiences, at which these separate systems have ceased to be convenient or time-saving and have become burdensome instead.

We can no longer consider the tasks of information design and user interface design independent of the broader context. The complex information environments people inhabit should influence the way designers approach their tasks. We have made some progress: There are universally understood icons and keyboard shortcuts that remain constant across most operating systems, application programs, and Web applications.

“We can no longer consider the tasks of information design and user interface design independent of the broader context.”

As designers, we may understand how our decisions affect users’ understanding of a digital product within the confines of a specific project—as well as a product’s usability and accessibility—but we rarely, if ever, understand how a product, service, or publication we produce fits into a person’s overall life or workflow. We may see a data-collection problem we need to solve for a client; the user sees yet another information interface to puzzle through. Our displays and user interfaces are technologies that must fit into people’s lives, not the other way around. We must become acutely aware of the pressures that complex systems place upon people. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, the products we create will not receive the same attention, acclaim, and interest from our audience that we give to them.

A perfect example of the unintended and unexpected consequences that result from digital experiences that are not part of an interrelated system appears in the proliferation of user account information. To keep users’ data private, we’ve secured our Web sites and applications with passwords. But each site membership and each application, requires users to remember a different set of account information. When solving the problem of data security, we did not imagine the sea of user names and passwords that would confuse people’s everyday lives. Our solution for securing information has created another problem: We need so many complicated alphanumerical passwords that we’re forced to write them down on an unsecured piece of paper or risk losing access to our data.

Interdependent Information Design

“Information design should take into account the interdependence of systems.”

Information design should take into account the interdependence of systems. Each of our projects affects others, in small and large ways. But it’s difficult to take such a broad view. When solving design problems, information designers should examine how their contributions fit into the particular industry in which they’re working, because the consequences of their design decisions may ripple across numerous systems.

For instance, our health care systems in the United States require massive duplication of private personal information. Every form a person fills out requires the same basic data, but we force people to repeat this information again and again. The simple act of visiting a doctor requires a mountain of paperwork. You must supply your data to your health care insurance provider, which is often separate from your vision and dental insurance companies. If you visit a new doctor or a specialist, you must fill out forms describing your medical history and contact information. Then, when you finally receive treatment, you must file an insurance claim.

Perhaps a simple way to start tackling this problem would be the adoption of a universal, scannable Personal Medical Information form—perhaps conforming to standards set by a government agency or the American Medical Association—that a patient could keep at home. Then, a patient could simply give a copy of the form to any doctor, dentist, insurer, human resources department, school admissions office, and so on, instead of having to sit down and fill out the same information over and over again.

The Shared Solution

“The idea of a single user interface for multiple types of transactions is not a new one.”

How do we navigate increasingly complex information spaces? The idea of a single user interface for multiple types of transactions is not a new one. Designers are familiar with Creative Suite® from Adobe®, which unifies formerly separate applications—including Illustrator®, Photoshop®, InDesign®, GoLive®, and Acrobat®—with shared menu structures, icons for tools, and keyboard shortcuts, and allows all of the applications to access data stored in what would otherwise be the silos of native file formats like .ai and .psd.

Google™ offers a customizable home page, on which users can view a variety of Web applications—from Gmail to Google Calendar—providing another example of how we can streamline access to information through a single portal. Since both Adobe Creative Suite and the Google home page assemble applications that already exist under one corporate roof, they present fewer challenges to users.

How do we find a way to enable people to more easily and powerfully interact with their data that is stored across applications from competing corporate entities and government agencies? Progress on the data side is well underway with widespread adoption of formats like XML and RSS. On the user interface side, we can encourage the adoption of standards and patterns. We solve the same problems for different products time and time again. We should share those solutions.

We can also look to other areas of practice for inspiration. In the realm of product design for home electronics, the concept of one interface for interaction has forward momentum. The first step was the universal remote control, which pulled together the functions of a dozen different television, cable, DVD, video, stereo, and CD remotes. Admittedly, many iterations of the universal remote have been difficult to use, so the concept is not fully realized.

However, in the same vein, the Pittsburgh Pebbles PDA Project—a partnership between Carnegie Mellon University and research and design firm MAYA—is jointly developing software for handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) that can control a much broader range of devices via Bluetooth® or other wireless protocols.

“What if user interfaces belonged to people instead of software?”

The Carnegie Mellon site describes the parameters of the endeavor, as follows: “The concept is that when users point their own hand-held[s] at a light switch, at a photocopier in an office, at a machine tool in a factory, at a VCR at home, at a piece of test equipment in the field, or at almost any other kind of device, the device will send to the hand-held a description of its control parameters. The hand-held uses this information to create an appropriate control panel, taking into account the properties of the controls that are needed, the properties of the hand-held (the display type and input techniques available), and the properties of the user....” According to MAYA, in preliminary tests of the Personal Universal Controller, “users completed tasks with 80% fewer errors and in half the time.”

In describing their contribution to the Pebbles project, MAYA asks, “What if interfaces belonged to users instead of devices?” The question for those designing digital user interfaces could then be: “What if user interfaces belonged to people instead of software?”

We are moving forward into an increasingly complex world of information systems. Now is a good time to consider sharing our design efforts and taking steps toward integrating our user interface solutions, so people can stop writing passwords on paper and start efficiently accomplishing the tasks they set out to do.

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