Last week I sat at the IDEA 2006 conference and, for the most part, allowed myself a peculiar luxury. I let myself think of things other than my company for prolonged periods.
IDEA was put on by the Information Architecture Institute and was interested in discussing the intersections of physical, expressive, emotive and raw-information worlds. Speakers talked about building architecture, user interface design, emotional impact, communication, vision, and so on.
I work with all these concepts every day. I make operations management software for government, usually in the transportation arena. Yet, being able to go and just focus on those elements alone made me appreciate them all the more.
While I've done these things before in both my psychological and architectural training, I started to look for the elements of interface design in other areas of my life.
So this morning, I started to look into the word interface. I know it's been done, but I needed to do it. This long Saturday post is that investigation.
We start with a snippet from an unlikely source for insight - the Java User Interface Design Tutorial. The good folks at Sun say:
Interfaces form a contract between the class and the outside world
Now, if you go to wikipedia, wiktionary, or Webster's, you get a very different, often self-referential definition of (noun) an interface or (verb) to interface:
At the end of all of this, we are left with many definitions of the word interface. The more I searched, the more definitions I found. The more the word was appropriated or misappropriated, the more the term was obfuscated.
A quick distillation will yield that an interface is at its weakest a simple point of contact. But the deeper meaning is that it is a purposeful point of contact. It is the object or the moment that conveys meaning.
Unless you are Derrida, one generally does not wish to be obtuse. We would like the elements of our creation to be effective. In order to do that, they need to convey meaning to the visitor.
Some messages are more complex and open to interpretation. Emotional, political, thoughtful information can impact different people in different ways. Thus, the point of communication requires more complex and subtle elements of design.
I am a member of an online community that uses the interesting musical creations of Bram Bos, himself an interaction designer in the Netherlands. We have had a long standing inside joke about 'The Button" which would be a UI Bram could design and all we would have to do is press "The Button" and exactly the music in our heads would just pop out the speakers.
The thing is, no one really wants "the button". In our daily lives we all sometimes wish for the button. When I was growing up in the 70s, when everything wanted to sound toxic, there was an allegedly soothing water softener for grown ups to bathe in called "Calgon" on the ad, the woman would shout "Calgon take me away!" and suddenly she'd be in this bubble bath and all of life's troubles would vanish. Calgon was her button.
While we all may yearn for a button or water with less calcium in it to yield unending bliss, it seems unlikely at the moment. There is no ultimate single-point guide to a universal happiness. So we have:
... a contract between the class and the outside world
We have that layer defining the article for interpretation and the interpreter. With simplistic messages like the stop sign, there is a near universal acceptance of the meaning of the message and if you do not accept that meaning you will be punished by society. With complex messages, like the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, reactions are as varied as there are people on the earth.
There are still those out there in computer land that prefer a command line interface to a graphical user interface. Their brains and temperament are geared towards memorizing commands and scanning man pages than using visual cues. This is their contract of interaction with their computer.
Others use graphical user interfaces. Some people can use maps, some can not. Some people have long calm conversations with their spouse, others bicker. Some politicians visit their constituents and have conversations, others give speeches. Some people use the self-checkout while others go through the line.
Some people interpret George Bush's speeches as plain talk while others interpret them as simplistic. Some people see Earth First as providing a first line of defense against environmental degradation while others see them as ecoterrorists. And so on...
When we bring all this back to interface design - whether we be programmers or architects or chefs - it is clear that our product is a manifestation of a contract with the person who experiences our product. Music, art, an emotional moment, even our own words are all interfaces to be interpreted.
They are the point where one person touches another. Where information, emotion, or something is exchanged. They are the instant where we recognize that we are separate, individual and unique - but we have limitless ways of communicating with the outside world.
And that's the challenge. We've done a lot of innovation to increase the amount of information we can receive, the amount of work we can do in a day, the complexity of information we can squirrel away for later use -- what can we do next to increase our emotive communication? The Quilt is a massive piece of emotive communication. Story Corps is a massive piece of emotive communication. In a way, I suppose, in the right hands, MySpace and blogging can be very emotive.
In the building of on line communities we talk a lot about the interface, and we're usually thinking of its technology or its hooks to keep you interested. But what if you can build an emotional UI? ... what then?
And when are you an interface? How have you designed you?