What We Want
For every technology, there is an interface. It may be a simple, mechanical handle or a complex, digital display, but there needs to be a connection between what is used and its user.
User-centered design is the current best practice for creating interfaces. It is a process of gaining an understanding of peoples’ capabilities, goals, and needs, then shaping technology to support them.
At the core of user-centered design is the implicit assumption that people have wants. We want to accomplish a task. We want to do it safely. We want feedback and control. We want an enjoyable experience. The user interface should be designed to best serve those wants.
But what about the user interface – does it have wants too? What at first seems like a counterintuitive question has its roots in the philosophy of technology. It is based on the premise that the same evolutionary forces that drive humans and all living things also drive technologies, including user interfaces.
It’s been almost five years since Kevin Kelly addressed this in his provocative book, “What Technology Wants.” In it, he reframes the relationship between people and technology. Kelly posits that technology is a continuation of the same evolutionary processes that produced life on Earth. Just as evolution led to the emergence of different species, including humans, it has also led to the development of numerous species of “technology,” including everything from beehives, books, beaver dams and clothing, to money, laws and music.
Like other products of evolution, technology has become a complex, self-organizing system, and it has “wants”— recurring tendencies or outcomes. For example, both organic and technical evolution continually drive towards greater variety.
Kelly’s position is that technology developed as the next step in our evolution, to empower us to go beyond our biological limitations. He declares, “The long-term bias of technology is to increase the diversity of artifacts, methods, and techniques of creating choices.” By extending our physical and mental capabilities, technology wants to provide us with greater opportunities.
“What Technology Wants” is ultimately about our relationship with technology, but it does not focus on the ultimate point of interaction we share with it — the user interface. If technology is essential to our future success and goals, then the means by which we interact with it must be critical.
By allowing us to communicate with all technologies, interfaces may be the most important type of technology. User interfaces are already succeeding in increasing opportunities by empowering people to interact with technologies that might otherwise be too difficult to use.
While Kelly recognizes the value of effective human-technology interaction in managing intricate systems—“We’ll hide this complexity with beautiful ‘simple’ interfaces as elegant as the round ball of an orange”—he doesn’t explore the topic any further. And perhaps he shouldn’t; user interfaces are not his area of expertise.
But they are mine.
So I posed a question to Kevin Kelly: “What do user interfaces want?” He promptly and diplomatically replied, “Great question and lens to look. I don't have an answer.”
Let’s look for an answer.
What Technology Wants
Kelly’s framework can be a starting point for attempting to understand user interfaces as a technology. He explains that since both living things and technology are the results of the same evolutionary process, then technology should be driven by the same tendencies as living things.
For example, over time, evolution moves livings species toward greater complexity, diversity and ubiquity. As technology is a product of the same evolutionary processes, it should reflect these same characteristics. And as a type of technology, user interfaces should as well.
A hallmark of both organic and technological evolution has been increasing complexity, and thus it is the same for user interfaces. And while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s important not to confuse “user interface” with “user experience.”
The experience of using technology has generally become simpler because of more effective, complex interfaces (e.g., the number of lines of code required to create the interface). Near-future user-interface paradigms, such as artificial intelligence and robots, will require even more complex user interfaces, but will provide for more naturalistic interaction.
Variation is another core evolutionary principle that has led to the great diversity of living species. Similarly, the industrial revolution and the subsequent digital revolution have resulted in an explosion of man-made technological varieties, with each new technology providing its own means of supporting user interaction.
Digital interfaces in particular have resulted in exponential diversification. For example, checking a bank account balance used to require going to the bank. Now, bank balances can be accessed via a web browser interface, mobile app, smartwatch app, interactive voice response system or ATM machine, just name a few. In each instance, the underlying banking system remains the same, but a growing number of user interface technologies enable multiple means of interaction with the banking system.
Just as organic species have propagated across the Earth, so too have technological species grown. But ubiquity is not just about physical presence; it is also about spreading further into our time and attention—perhaps the most powerful of evolutionary characteristics.
The proliferation of mobile and wearable technologies—and their associated user interfaces—has expanded technology’s reach, both in terms of geography and mindshare. By increasing the quantity and frequency of interactions between people and technology, these portable user interfaces accelerate the overarching goal of technology to provide us with opportunity and choice. One might even consider wearable technology a form of symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship between living and technological species.
Evolutionary characteristics are clearly present in the progress of user interfaces. We could consider user interfaces an interesting, perhaps exemplary species of technology and end the discussion here. But user interfaces are special because of their ability to interconnect people with technology.
What User Interfaces Want
To better understand what user interfaces want, we could consider similar technologies. In fact, we tend to blur the distinction between an interface and the underlying technology with which it connects. Hypothetically, any technology, digital or otherwise, could have any form of interface—a bicycle could be steered via a touchscreen while pedals could control a smartphone. Such impractical examples suggest that our perception of technology is often about the interface, rather than that which is interfaced.
So, rather than focusing on an interface’s material aspects, it makes more sense to focus on its functional aspects. Regardless of their makeup, all user interfaces share the same purpose: to connect people with technical systems. Viewed from this perspective, the technology that is closest to user interfaces is also one whose function is to connect. That technology is language.
Language was an extremely powerful human invention, for as it emerged, both humanity and its ideas rapidly expanded. While there are multiple language origin theories, several suggest that spoken, symbolic language began at least 50,000 years ago, coinciding with the geographical spread of humans from Africa, through the Middle East and then on to Europe and Asia.
But beyond person-to-person communication, language also amplified an individual’s ability to think by providing a rich symbolic framework - a set of tools for perceiving the world and generating new idea. Combining that with interpersonal communication, it enabled humans to create and combine ideas with each other, leading to even more ideas—and technologies.
The evolution of language also reflects the core evolutionary characteristics of any technology. Over the past 50,000+ years, language has clearly become widespread, diverse (over 6,000 currently spoken languages), and more complex (partly because new technologies require new terms).
User interfaces, like language, are a technology that enables the communication of ideas and information; in this case the communication is between people and technology. One might say user interfaces are an emerging form of language. But only recently has technology developed sufficiently enough to allow us to start effectively communicating with it.
User interfaces want what languages want. They want to extend our ability to generate and communicate information, which leads to new ideas. As we figure out how to interact with technology, we stand at the cusp of another potential advancement in civilization - just as the emergence of spoken language caused the rapid growth of information and ideas over 500 centuries ago, user interfaces have quickly accelerated the exchange of information and ideas between people and technology. Like spoken language, user interfaces are a technology, but also a meta-technology that allows us to generate new technologies.
As user interface designers, how do we steward this leap forward?
What User Interface Designers Want
What does the evolution of user interfaces mean for user-interface designers? For Kevin Kelly, it’s the responsibility of humans to “coax technology along the paths it naturally wants to go.” If this is the case, then user interfaces are the channels for coaxing technology, and UI designers have unique capabilities to shape the future.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying that the best way to predict the future is to create it. This is what user interface designers do in a very practical way, every day. So how do user interface designers create solutions that “coax technology,” and where should they be leading it?
Evolution is a long game and it’s difficult to make predictions. For practical purposes, it’s useful to parse the future into digestible time scales. Consider the future of user-interface design in terms of powers of ten: short-term (5 years), mid-term (50 years), and long-term (500 years) timeframes:
Short-Term (5 years) – Evolving Design Process
A few years is nothing in evolutionary time, but a vast duration in technology. In the near term, designers should consider the three core evolutionary characteristics and how they might apply to current design thinking.
- Complexity: Contemporary interface design is focused on limiting the end-user’s exposure to complexity, but effective design should really be about managing complexity. Complexity cannot be eliminated, but it can be appropriately placed within a system. UI designers themselves need to embrace complexity in order to advance their field. (You can’t just make something simpler – you have to pay for that somewhere with complexity either in the idea or the implementation). This added complexity means developing new tools and processes for creating interfaces, building more expertise into UIs, and understanding user needs at an even deeper level than current best practices would recommend.
- Diversity: Design processes typically generate many ideas that are narrowed to a single solution through a process of iterative feedback. In reality, multiple design solutions may be best for varying users and situations. This contextual approach to design is already happening with device-specific versions of interfaces. A smart watch app does not, and should not, present all of the same information or features as the tablet version. We should expect to see the trend of diversified interfaces grow, with a multitude of potential solutions for interacting with any given technology.
- Ubiquity: Not too long ago, user interface design was only about the computer screen. But the spread of mobile devices and the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) have begun to formalize the need to “design for everywhere.” Designers need to consider all of the opportunities for interacting with a system.
All three of these evolutionary characteristics point towards a future where user interface designers will need to be more skilled and specialized than they are today – how will they meet the challenge?
Mid-Term (50 years) - Evolving Design Profession
If it’s not evident now, it will become clear in the coming decades that we are in the infancy of user interface design. Neema Moraveji of Stanford’s Design School has described our digital interfaces as “flat, faceless robots”—both a criticism of impersonality in current designs and a statement about the future direction of design.
Undoubtedly, user interfaces will become more sophisticated, varied and ever-present over the next decades. Consequently, designers, their training and their practices will need to grow as well.
Currently, user interface design education is rather immature. For comparison, consider a more mature applied field, such as engineering, which not only has several major disciplines (chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, etc.), but multiple sub-disciplines and cross-disciplinary fields—over 100 in some categorizations. It’s reasonable to assume that user interface design will expand analogously.
The future leaders of UI design will also become more specialized, with deeper expertise in both design methods and their particular domain of focus. There are emerging examples of this now; for instance, automotive UI designers have their field of practice, but their training is similar to what any other UI designer would receive. In the future, as the body of knowledge in automotive-interface design grows, it will become one of many new specializations.
The idealized, contemporary “T-shaped” designer with a broad range of applicable design skills (the horizontal stroke of the “T”) and a deep expertise in a particular skill set (represented by the vertical stroke) will no longer be sufficient.
In the next century, design demands will be turned on their side. “E-shaped” may be a better description for the required skills; there will be a need for designers to possess a deep domain expertise (vertical stroke) and also be armed with multiple ways of designing for that domain, across devices and contexts (the horizontal strokes).
Long-Term (500 years) - Evolving Users
Hundreds of years from now, will technology even need user interfaces? As technology continues to evolve, will it become too complex for interaction? The extreme scenario is that technology will advance to the point of self-sufficiency; human interaction will no longer be required. This has been illustrated in numerous dystopian science fiction stories, with mixed results for humankind.
The more reasonable expectation is that user interfaces will not disappear, but rather continue to co-evolve and change along with us. In a lifetime we have seen the process of interacting with a computer go from mechanical, to text-based, to graphical, to voice- and gesture-activated. These rapid advances are not just technological changes—they have shaped our interactions with and expectations of all technology. User interfaces have made the complex accessible, even personal.
The current trend of “invisible interfaces” speaks to the emergence of interaction technologies that lack the traditional keyboard/mouse/touchscreen controls, and that we may even interact with unknowingly. But they are still interfaces, and they still must be designed. For example, self-driving cars require more interface technology, not less, to support both new features as well as traditional driving when desired.
Ultimately, it’s likely that external systems will gain a level of self-sufficiency that requires minimum human interaction. But when we get to that point, we can turn inward. Like language, interfaces are not just about connecting us with others, but providing a framework for amplifying our own thinking.
Instead of thinking as user interfaces as a means to connect us with external technologies, we will use technology as a way to better interface with ourselves. Not interfacing our brains to external technology, but actually improving the interfaces between the different modules of the mind may be the ultimate design challenge. But when we succeed, we will be providing ourselves with greater opportunity and choice than ever before.
That’s what user interfaces want.
Image by Erin Chan and Morgan Knepper.