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