Kyle VanHemert wrote a great piece a while back for Wired Magazine that considered the forward-thinking computer operating system portrayed in the film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. VanHemert believes we’re heading towards a future in which technology will “dissolve” into everyday life. A future perhaps without screens (and clunky hardware), a concept I find intriguing considering our current reliance on screen based GUIs.
No I’m not going to dwell on Siri’s shortcomings or gripe about the crude voice recognition apps available on most Android phones. Incidentally I couldn’t tell you the name of the crusty voice app I had on my Galaxy S3 because I uninstalled it after only a couple weeks of use, mainly because it just never seemed to work.
Voice apps, particularly on mobile devices, seem logical, in theory, but are really just a sort of tech novelty at present. Of course keyboards are just too darn cumbersome and impractical on smaller screens. And who really enjoys typing? Not me, I’m terrible. Whether it’s a full-sized desktop keyboard with chunky concave buttons or the ridiculously small tactile-deficient touch screen variety employed by most smartphones and tablets, typing is just tedious. Mouse pointers and trackballs too are arguably among the most archaic forms of input whether you’re writing a book or drawing a picture. But dictating to a computer, well now, how does that work out in a noisy public space or open concept office? Maybe the title of this post should be: A Keyboardless Future, certainly that’s the popular idea perpetuated in most science-fiction films. We’ll be talking our way through the Web instead of typing and clicking.
In any case designers of screen-based digital products will have to eventually rethink their role and what it means to craft a compelling user experience. I’m not even sure I know what that means anymore. What’s a compelling user experience? One that garners a person’s undivided attention for more than 30-seconds? Does it require beautiful typography, rich colourful graphics, and stunning photography? Is it even possible to elicit the same emotional responses between a person and software that does not exploit these sensory visual titillations?
What are the desirable aesthetic attributes of an OS that does not employ a GUI? In the film Her it’s Scarlett Johansson’s voice —and who would argue with that! Wouldn’t you rather interact with a Scarlett Johansson-esque sounding voice when, say, sifting through your email in-box rather than a mind numbing artificially generated types we hear in, for example, car GPS navigation systems. You know, that slightly creepy voice: monotone, completely devoid of any inflection; cold and unsympathetic when we deviate from the pre-programmed turn-by-turn directions. Recalibrating…recalibrating…
Visual and audible titillations aside, perhaps a UI that gets out of your way and allows you to accomplish a specific task (e.g. pay a credit card bill, reserve a table at your favorite restaurant, delete a file) is more effective with certain attributes subdued or completely removed from the equation. But if my phone or car GPS OS is going to use Scarlett Johansson’s voice I might get distracted and go off on tangent conversations like Joaquin Phoenix did which means I’d never get anything done or possibly rear-end the driver in front of me. The OS in Her isn’t just a pretty voice, it’s inquisitive and seems to intelligently anticipate and prioritize Theodore’s needs (the character played by Joaquin).
I would say UX in its current state as a core discipline of software design and modern Web application development seems to focus disproportionately on what people see rather than what people might need to do. While the old axiom attractive things work better is a design principle few would dismiss, what of design’s most endearing tenets: form follows function, when there is no form. What then?
image credit: Leo Roubos