A Screenless Future?

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 obsession with digital gadgets is showing no signs of waning while systematically destroying traditional media consumption models.

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 speaking to your 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. The notion we’ll be talking our way through the Web instead of typing and clicking things we see rendered on a screen.

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 good UX require beautiful typography, rich colourful graphics, and stunning photography? Is it even possible to elicit the same emotional connections with 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 clearly 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 sifting through your morning email rather than the mind numbing artificially generated types we hear in, say, car GPS nav 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, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a UI that gets out of your way and allows you to accomplish a specific task quickly (e.g. pay a credit card bill, reserve a table at your favorite restaurant, delete a file) is sometimes more effective with certain attributes subdued or completely removed from the equation —gradient colured buttons with giant 30-pixel drop shadow effects immediately come to mind.
But if my phone or car GPS is going to sound like Scarlett Johansson 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 if I’m behind the wheel. But 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). What current OS can make those claims? Not Windows 8.1, not OS X Mavericks, not Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, not Android 4.4 KitKat. Yes wearable voice-enabled devices are mildly interesting, but clumsy and rather primitive in capability at present (though well-intentioned). In fact, what we experience today could be viewed as the equivalent of horse and carriage technology when we think about the utopian concepts presented in the film Her.

. . .

I would say UXD 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

What’s Your Profession?

Have you ever worked on a project with a dilettante? Also known as hack, poseur, amateur, or layman.

Notable examples include the hobbyist photographer: dropped $700+ on a who-gives-a-shit-megapixel digital SLR and think they’re Thomas Hawk because they’ve taken a few shots on their last exotic all-inclusive family resort vacation. The would-be copywriter: launched their very own blog (bravo for you!); writing an e-book off and on for the last 7-years or so, a mediocre collection of short stories loosely based on their childhood experiences (yawn). The weekend designer: took a few art classes back in high school, dabbles in logos and rustic illustrations; designed the invitations for their cousin’s wedding. The ‘hack’ web developer: prefers not to work with raw mark-up, but rather drag n’ drop graphically-oriented templates; couldn’t write a line of code if their life depended upon it.

These people bring to mind a scene in the film 300.

King Leonidas, leader of the Spartan army, marching into battle against the Persians is approached by one of his allies Daxos and his cobbled-together band of Arcadian men. Daxos upon seeing that Leonidas has assembled a mere 300 soldiers and who will inevitably be facing more than 100,000 of king Xerxes’ men feels Sparta’s chances of successfully defending their country’s border are grim at best.
King Leonidas, undeterred by Daxos’ cowardly remarks, says that he has brought more soldiers than the seemingly larger Arcadian contingency, pointing out that Daxos’ so-called army are not soldiers but rather sculptors, potters and blacksmiths and who are hopelessly unprepared for the looming battle at hand.

What Stifles Creativity

There are a million and one things conspiring to undermine your workflow on any given day.

Be vigilant. There are forces at work in the world around you: at home, during your commute, in the office, on this very screen you’re staring into right now —all diligently plotting to steal your creative energy and rob you of your best ideas.

Eventually the astute creative practitioner will devise clever ways to counteract the insidious idea-thwarting noise that destroys one’s ability to enter what John Cleese calls the creative open mode.

Work remotely the odd day each week if you can. Work in your pyjamas and slippers, if it helps you focus.

Stop dwelling on negative thoughts. Be gone!

Colleagues who feel compelled to gripe about so-and-so not pulling their weight or client/project so-and-so not living up to their expectations because it’s going through double-digit rounds of revisions. Hey, these things can get the best of us. But don’t let it. Suck it up buttercup. Welcome to the wonderful world of work. If you let every little thing get to you each day, read too deeply into every email or text message you receive (hey, you’re gonna get millions over the course of your life), eventually you’ll get an ulcer or some unpronounceable medical ailment that will effectively stomp your ability to do anything productive or worthwhile from this day forth.

Go smoke a cigarette (if you have to), put your headphones on, close your eyes and visualize what you want to accomplish. Now open your eyes and get down to work. Crush all subsequent distractions in your path.

It’s fascinating to think as we age we invariably begin to fixate on our various physical ailments, “oh my back’s been acting up lately”, “I’ve got this burning, itching sensation around my ankles”. You know, those awkward conversations, usually with someone your senior, perhaps an elderly uncle or grandparent. It seems every time you talk the first thing out of their mouth is “Oh I’ve got this pain in my -unmentionable- area”. And then you learn they’re taking copious amounts of prescription drugs, eating primarily processed foods with little or no nutritional value, completely abstaining from any and all forms of physical exertion. And they wonder why their body (and mind) are slowly withering away.

This is actually a really awful post. I’m not sure what the point is I’m trying to make or where this is going. I seem to be going off on a tangent.
Just thinking again about how my laptop broke down last week makes my blood boil. It’s just a stupid machine. I’m healthy and alive and so are my family and friends. That’s really all that matters.

I’d much rather be thinking about my creative zen-space right now.