By Peter Eckert
Originally published in Innovation Journal, Spring, 2011
Looking back, user-interface design has undergone a rapid evolution. It first emerged in the 1950s as engineers began to evaluate data on monitors. For decades, user-interface design was simplistic and focused on basic information display or sets of data for engineers to interpret. With the Internet revolution, however, user-interface interaction moved from the backstage to the forefront as designers sought to create an engaging experience for end users. Social media, smart phones, an increasing proliferation of embedded environments and the convergence of the Internet and television require usability for diverse populations.
Like never before, user-interface design is now poised to transform how global populations interact and leverage technology. As companies strive to appeal to a broader array of demographics worldwide, technology must become increasingly easier to use and understand. Leading companies are recognizing that the user experience is essential to gaining market share and consumer loyalty. In the next five years, engaging user interfaces will rapidly become an increasing priority for companies as people—from consumers to business users—seek out solutions that offer as much intuitiveness and simplicity as they do function.
Convergence Remains Distant
The dust from the information and technology explosion of recent decades will not settle in a matter of years; we are overwhelmed with functionality and underwhelmed with the ability to intuitively access it. The role of interface design will only increase in importance as companies compete. This trend is not limited to the consumer market; simultaneously, leading business-to-business software companies are seeking to bring the ease and functionality of consumer products to their business customers.
Many business-to-business players may take a giant leap forward in coming years, but a gulf between what’s available to consumers and what’s available in the business world will continue to exist. Presently, the gap is vast between the usability available to consumers and business-to-business applications.
For example, take the iPhone and iPad, which are elegant, intuitive and easy-to-use consumer products. Contrast these consumer technologies with the kinds of software leveraged by many leading corporations, like an ERP software platform. ERP systems deal with many complex aspects of an enterprise, thus, processes can be lengthy and difficult to understand. Traditionally, these platforms have had user interfaces that are very difficult to understand. However, business users who regularly track data via ERPs have grown accustomed to their particular computing conventions. Many enterprise software companies understand that a more intuitive user interface would cut the learning curve for new users. Despite the inherent complexity of the software, access to information and input of information can be designed for greater simplicity.
In the consumer market, ease of use is essential to winning hearts, minds and market share. In the business market, an intuitive product is a differentiator that enables organizations to be more productive. As a result of these benefits, a surge of redesign and new design will come from companies serving both businesses and consumers.
What’s worse are industries that remain totally burdened with paper processes and antiquated software—such as subsets of the public sector, education and health care. These professionals are going to feel an even greater chasm than ever before. It may require decades before they catch up and reap the benefits of greater usability.
If you look at the software that social services organizations use to track, for example, child abuse, those user interfaces are way behind the private marketplace. These more customized, highly time-intensive implementations, to a large extent, are literally 10 years or more behind the overall usability trends in the private sector. The end-user base in the social services sector, in many cases, struggles daily with very rudimentary and archaic user-interface design that are far more complex to use than traditional enterprise software.
Consumers and business users alike are going to see rapid advances in user-interface design, but the transformation will be uneven and chaotic. More and more, companies are working autonomously to build out suites and interrelated products with new user interfaces. With all this innovative design happening in silos, users will continue to bounce from device to appliance without a universal norm of any kind. Each interaction, while simpler, will have to be learned and individuals will find they are learning the quirks and standards of more and more technologies just to get the functionality they seek.
As a result, we are only going to see more diversity and incongruence in design overall. For global companies, this is the time to put their best solutions forward and integrate the user interfaces and functionalities of their own product sets—spanning consumer appliances and televisions to enterprise software suites.
In short, convergence of technologies is becoming more of a priority, but it stops within companies. In the near term, devices, Web applications, software and appliances developed across separate companies will not interact any better than they do today. Many companies will continue to work autonomously to develop their own concepts related to user experience; they perceive it as an extension of their marketing and brand identity. It is reminiscent of the advent of the Web and its impact on extending the brand and offering a meaningful virtual experience. This is not surprising to most people because that lack of integration and the individuality of interfaces are so ingrained into our daily lives.
Because we are in the middle of an evolution, we are barely cognizant that it is possible to have greater uniformity. However, looking toward the future—perhaps several decades from now—this lack of congruence will likely fade entirely. One day our technologies will be able to interact and respond far more seamlessly, but that will require another evolution or revolution altogether.
Increasing the usability of a wide range of technologies is more than a trend; it’s a gold rush. While much advancement in user-interface design is happening in the US, it is a global challenge. Over the next several decades the growing middle classes across China and India and beyond will surge. Companies are asking themselves how can they support the technology needs of these populations. With many pockets of fast-growing populations having little exposure to technology as a part of their daily lives, and companies looking to market consumer technologies to this new group, it’s critical that the solutions be highly intuitive in order to successfully navigate this abrupt transition.
Without the iterative layers, some populations will skip many of the steps those of us in the US and Western Europe have experienced in the computing age. As some countries have gone directly from no phones to cell phones, no television to satellite television and Internet and no computers to powerful portable computers, they will also skip ahead a few steps with user-interface design.
Those facts are highlighted by such rapidly growing countries as China, India, Russia and Brazil. These countries have enormous populations beginning to leverage computing, many of whom did not grow up exposed to computers outside of cell phones and are unfamiliar with even basic computing conventions. However, these markets have a potential 400 to 600 million new users—an incredible opportunity for leading consumer electronics companies.
In making these new technology products, leading consumer technology companies will be delving into a new pocket of user-interface design and will need to think through language and cultural cues to create meaningful solutions. The cultural meanings behind colors and symbols play an important role in creating a user-centric product or application. It is also imperative to recognize how specific cultures truly interact with technology.
For example, in India a large majority of businesspeople have servants with little education who are frequently charged with setting up the computers. The users of the computer will not know anything about what an OS is or how to install applications; therefore, new user interfaces and conventions need to be established before those users can actually do computing.
Or think about China operating under communist leadership with political and social norms that are very different than in the West. For example, in China people read from top to bottom, not left to right, demonstrating that each new user demographic will bring a new set of requirements in regard to user interfaces.
Racing to market with greater levels of functionality is not the only answer: the technologies must offer users an intuitive and tailored user interface to fully enjoy and access those features within the context of their cultural experience. This is a new challenge that is rapidly unfolding as more solutions are offered to emerging populations around the globe.
A Seamless Future
Technology is destined to become increasingly seamless, and the line between activity, life and our interaction with it will fade. New, improved user interfaces are a stepping stone to a transformation where technology and the physical environment blend more intuitively.So, while today every device must be handled and manipulated separately with disconnected protocols to garner the desired functionality, the lack of interoperability will slowly shift.
The seeds of this transformation are being sowed now, and many leading companies are turning to user-interface design experts to create real solutions for more convergent experiences. The next generation of technology will seek to dazzle users with its simplicity and power while reducing boundaries between products and functionality.
For emerging populations around the world, leading consumer companies will seek to capture market share. We may find in five years that millions or billions more people have access to technology that exposes them to more information than ever before. We may find that user-interface design allows for even greater global communication and builds a connection to populations that have yet to experience the vast technology revolution of the last two decades.