When I was a kid, computers were huge, room-size black boxes that were strictly the domain of scientists in lab coats. Apart from their presumed ability to solve complex mathematical equations, the purpose of these mysterious machines was entirely beyond me. Even as they shrank in size to become “personal” computers in the early 1980s, serious interaction still required the ability to speak a language that, to most people, seemed utterly incomprehensible.
The GUI Breakthrough
All of this changed with the introduction of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), first popularized by Apple’s original Macintosh and then adopted by Windows. For a while, a monitor, keyboard and mouse seemed like the logical apex of computer interaction. But then touch-screens came along and demonstrated that there was more than one way to communicate with a computing device. As form factors continued to adapt to more specialized use cases (ie. a smartphone for communication on the go, a tablet for long-form reading and media consumption etc.) the average user became more intuitively aware of the concept of User Experience – whether or not they had ever heard the term.
Now that User Experience has become a key competitive differentiator, companies that were left flat-footed by the touch-screen revolution would be well advised to adjust their gazes over the horizon to better anticipate the technologies that will next transform our lives. While the three concepts shaping the future of user experience point to even greater possibilities in the future, all exist today as nascent technology and are exerting a powerful influence on current experience design thinking.
1. The Invisible Interface
The ultimate evolution of the user interface is for it to completely disappear. An obvious replacement for a physical input device is the human voice combined with a listening machine. However, the ability of a computer to hear and process words is different from its ability to understand meaning and context, which requires Artificial Intelligence (or AI).
Siri’s humorous, preprogrammed quips and frequent gaffes notwithstanding, AI is making incredible advances and is being incrementally added to many web-based applications. Apple and Google both have AI engines built into their product ecosystems and Amazon has stealthily been working on its Echo device (shown above) , which aims to be an always-on, voice-activated hub for the home. Once AI advances to the point where it can build a detailed contextual model of an individual user’s world, it will have the ability to go beyond voice to anticipate one’s needs and desires based on subtle behavioural cues.
I believe that Artificial Intelligence is too critical to the evolution of computing not to become an open platform. Much the way Amazon has opened its cloud computing resources to democratize server infrastructure and Google has opened up its maps and analytics platforms to drive innovation, firms soon will be able to tap into artificial intelligence engines to power their own specialized products, allowing them to stay focused on designing a great user experience.
2. The Internet of Things
The internet of things refers to the idea of everyday items such as appliances, vehicles, food containers, toiletries, or clothing being connected to the internet via active or passive technology. As microchips shrink in size and cost, cheap sensors will be affixed to everything you own, allowing you to turn those items into various forms of data. This has the potential to profoundly alter the world we live in, introducing huge efficiencies in transportation, consumer purchasing behaviour and health.
Picture a world in which all cars are autonomously driven: there is no need to own a vehicle because one can be available at a moment’s notice, eliminating the need for 80% of today’s cars that sit idly parked. Forget delays: traffic will be perfectly distributed, while variables such as speed to your destination and vehicle access will adhere to market principles that incentivize people to travel at less busy times.
Or, imagine a “smart” kitchen full of food containers with active sensors in them. These could keep a running total of your food supplies, automating the process of restocking and even suggesting recipes based on what’s currently available in your home.
The internet of things is already a reality, albeit in a primitive state compared to its potential. Nest’s internet connected smart thermostats allow users to control their home’s temperature remotely. Over time it optimizes energy consumption as the device learns user patterns allowing it to automatically adjust temperatures when nobody’s home. Tile allows users to purchase a simple chip sensor that can be attached to any personal items they wish to track – typically keys or a wallet – and quickly locate them via a smartphone app when they are lost.
3. Augmented Reality
Augmented reality describes the introduction of visual or sensory data as a layer to provide additional meaning or context for what the user is already experiencing in their real-world environment. While Google Glass met some early resistance around privacy and was too basic to be truly useful, it did popularize the idea of a device that is designed specifically to augment realty. It is now much easier for many people to imagine a world in which computing devices will seamlessly augment all of our decision making, blurring the line between device and user.
Many of the Augmented Reality applications we see today are being used in a retail context, allowing consumers to experience a product in a way that will increase their probability of purchase. Sayduck, for instance, creates software that allows furniture buyers to place a piece of virtual furniture in the actual environment using an iPad as an intermediary (above).
Google recently purchased World Lens (above), which allows travellers to translate signs into their native language simply by pointing their smartphone at the object.
Conclusion: the Future of User Experience
The Invisible Interface, the Internet of Things and Augmented Reality are not distinct ideas – they are broad, imprecise concepts that invite discussion and further definition. However as conversation starters, they are a good jumping off point for exploring the innovations that will have a profound influence on the experiences we design for tomorrow.