I Should Be Number 1!

By Par Axelsson

The other day I came across one of the many lists ranking the 10 most promising professions for 2010 and although Design Researcher, Interaction Designer and Visual Designer were not directly on the list, I did find a few professions on the list that certainly made our future at projekt202 look pretty bright. On most of the lists, number 2, 3 and/or 4 was Computer Software Engineer or Software Analyst, which is probably not a surprise to anybody since pretty much everything nowadays involves a computer or piece of code in one way or another. However, the upswing on this is that everyone knows that these people also need designers like us at p202 to make their creations user friendly through some amazing User Interfaces (UI). When people speak of a User Interface, most people automatically think of a type of screen through which a user interacts with some form of a computer using different input devices. This is of course very often the case; however, what one may fail to realize is that a User Interface does not necessarily have to involve a computer or traditional input device. Those very same design principles that we as designers employ on a day-by-day basis to our computer software designs, can in many ways also be applied to hardware devices other than just computers.

Whether you are heating up your lunch in the microwave, changing the radio station in your car, getting a glass of water from your water dispenser or are making a cup of coffee in the office coffee maker – you are always, in one way or another, interacting with some device through an interface. The implementation of guidelines may be different depending on the type of object you are interacting with but, deep down, it’s all the same principles.

One of my own experiences that may be a huge opportunity in the world of both traditional and nontraditional UI design, is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) project. This is a multi-billion dollar government-funded project spanning several years in which the FAA is completing a comprehensive overhaul of our national airspace system. This overhaul includes any system, activity or procedure from flight planning to final approach and landing. It involves millions of people in hundreds of different professions and positions – all to make air travel more convenient, dependable, safe and secure. The technical challenges of creating a robust system which will be able to effectively and efficiently integrate all parties involved are tremendous, but what is just as challenging is to create a common interface that can effectively and safely be phased in and replace all the current systems.

I spent some time briefly on a small sub effort of this project trying to conceptualize a system that could be used to estimate the risk of implementing and replacing various sub systems from a human factors perspective. Although my involvement was brief, it gave me a good perspective on how complex this project is and also how extremely important it is for the US economy and the American people.

In 2007, civil aviation was responsible for $1.3 trillion of economic activity or 5.6% of the entire US economy. In the same year, US airspace handled over 767 million passengers and transported over $67 billion Revenue Ton Miles (RTM) of freight – all which together employed over 11 million Americans earning $396 billion. Because passenger traffic alone is estimated to reach over 1 billion travelers by 2021, the NextGen System will be essential to handle this increase along with freight transportation.

As the technology continues to rapidly progress and new ways of interacting between humans and machines or objects are being developed, I see a huge need for new usable and innovative UIs to be developed that can be used to tie users and input and output devices of more nontraditional or unconventional types together.

Additional examples from my previous experience that can be used to highlight this case are a number of DOD sponsored projects related to Augmented Cognition that I worked on prior to coming to projekt202. Augmented Cognition is a field of science that seeks to extend a human’s cognitive abilities by applying computational technologies. I got exposed to working with neurophysiological sensor technology such as Eye-Tracking and Electroencephalography (EEG), which were combined and used to identify cognitive information and visual interest among users and improve intelligence analysis and training. I also worked on a project creating a communications language for Special Operations Forces that was based solely on the tactile sense (i.e. no need for auditory or visual contact).

The common thread across both of these projects is the great conceptual idea, but also the lack of focus on the UI that was developed along with the technology.  When any new hardware technology is being developed, it is extremely important that the supporting interface get just as much attention as the hardware (if not more). Although the hardware might be the first thing people lay their eyes on, the UI is what the end users will be interacting with when using the product, and if that is not up to standard, users will express their discontent to the decision makers.

I do, however, believe that more and companies and decision makers are finally coming to their senses and are realizing the need and the importance of strong, intuitive user-driven User Interface design. As this happens, there will be a great demand for talented designers and companies like projekt202.  We have already seen signs of this trend at projekt202 through a significant increase in clients and projects, primarily software related but also other type of UIs and on several different types of hardware devices. Based on these facts, in my mind – my profession should be number one that list!