Monday, June 15, 2009

The art of the interface

Thinking about interfaces reminded me of the mantra, probably started by Michelin, that emphasizes the only thing touching the ground is the tires. Well, in the world of web sites, the only thing touching the users is the interface, and if that doesn't work well, they will not be back.

But what does that phrase mean, "work well"? Is it strictly usability and utility? Can an interface actually be artistic and challenging and add a layer of meaning on its own? I think so, but that doesn't mean most of the web users are ready for such a development. In short, I suspect that we still are in an era of getting used to the possibilities of interfaces. Significant experimentation and artistic expression can't really come until everyone understands the rules. Once those common guidelines are established, the artists will come along and break them in fascinating ways. At this point, I suspect, most of the experimentation gets written off quickly as someone screwing up. In hindsight, some of the interfaces being created today will be groundbreaking work. But we seem to still be too close to the beginning of all of this to appreciate what we have.

While I enjoy complicated and provocative interfaces in theory, and I do like those on some web sites, I have to add that strange navigation and obscure references and labels frustrate me quickly, too. I have to be in the mood to explore for those types of pages to work, and most of the time, I'm simply on a mission to seek and process information quickly. I just don't have a lot of time right now to try to figure out the whims of the web designer.

If I had more time, which might never happen again, and if I really was interested in a site, I probably would have fun tinkering around with an innovative page. But, again, usually I'm in a hurry to find what I want, and I would guess that most people are operating in today's world with that kind of mindset.

When it comes to mobile applications (I have a G1 Android phone), interfaces have to be even simpler, because the screen is so much smaller and the devices, frankly, are more foreign. That doesn't leave much room for experimentation at this point, and I think it would be a death wish to try to create an expressive mainstream interface on a mobile device at this point in the medium's development. Maybe down the road.

Right now, I really like the simplest and most straightforward mobile interfaces. In particular, I like the ones that use the congealing standards, hearkening back to the early days of the Xerox PARC desktop (whence came the familiar WIMP -- Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device) or the early Apple computers, the genesis of computer conventions highlighted in the conclusion of Steven Johnson's book "Interface Culture."

Some of the best interfaces on my G1 right now:

Shop saavy (allows bar codes to be scanned by the phone's camera, then produces lowest prices for the items listed on the web as well as in nearby stores, located by GPS) -- Press the icon, a list of five actions appear (search for a product, which involves taking a picture of its barcode, wish list, history, settings and price alerts, another cool feature that will let the user know when the item price has dropped to the point specified by the user. Even though this application is mind blowing in how it changes the shopping experience, it was so simple to use that I just started pressing clearly marked buttons and having amazing amounts of information appear.

Shazam (listens to a song, then identifies it, loading a screen that gives access to more info, chance to download, etc) -- This amazing program can listen to a song coming out of a radio and identify it. I couldn't believe it, until I tried it. But I was thrown off the first time by the two options this app gives me when I start it: "Tag Now" and "My Tags." I had no idea what either one was, so I just pressed the Tag Now button, and a circular bar started going around on my screen, with a text label of "listening." Of course, I wasn't ready to make this work with those kinds of constructions. But, after I understood the system from that first time through and the errors I made, the second time was easy. I've found it was a learnable system that I haven't forgot yet.

Flixster (shows movies playing in the area, times, theater address via GPS, ratings of critics and Flixster users, trailers, etc) -- I'd say that the interface design of this app begins with the name of the icon, using "Movies" rather than Flixster. I have so many apps that I might not remember what one called Flixster might do, but I certainly am able to look up movies with this program, which is why I spot it so easily under that label. Then again, it's simple, simple, simple and straightforward to access a lot of information. I don't want to explore an artist's mind with this thing, I just want to know when the movie starts.

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