Better Interfaces Needed, Not More Gadget Screens

A recent Harvard Business Review article, Yes You Need More Gadgets, starts off with the story of a woman who is distractred from remembering that the smartphone she is talking on also has her boarding pass for the plane she is about to board. It goes on to describe the situation and how that points to a failure of one device to do many things well. In my experince, and opinion, that would be true if interfaces were designed better. They aren’t, and that’s where this propentency to exclaim we need more gadgets comes from.

Following somewhat along with Microsoft’s 3 screens and the cloud analogy, I think that many people – and this is across computing/lifestyle needs – can do with a small selection of effeciently integrated primary screens. Right now, I see these primary screens being categorized as follows:

  • Wearable (<2in; touch/knob/voice inputs)
  • Mobile (2-5in; touch/thumb-board/numeric/voice inputs)
  • Tablet (5-10in; touch/stylus inputs)
  • Composition (5-17in touch/keyboard/mouse-inputs)
  • Transport (automotive windshield, auto climate/audio controls, bus terminal; passive display first then touch/voice inputs for filtering)
  • Surface/Workspace (cashier display, desk, coffee table; passive display and collaboration; accessories/touch/stylus inputs)

So then you have out of these selection of screens a suite of contexts which intersect your day or instances of productivity. Going back to the HBR example of the woman on her mobile while boarding the plane, she clearly had two screens which needed to be in sync with each other because of her temporal and spatial contexts (Mobile and Transport).

Clearly, this isn’t how it was designed. And so, she has to (a) keep one ear free from the call she was on to hear when the plane was boarding, and (b) keep a mental finger on the location she saved that boarding pass.

The ideal scenario here would be the airline/airport offering a Foursquare-like check-in facility though a mobile app and SMS. You have purchased the ticket (as you would normally) and opted to have it sent to your mobile. The QR code would then be scanned at both the security check point and the gate. Once you have checked in at the security checkpoint however, you’d get a prompt from the local cellular accesspoint asking if you would like to be notified by local (IP-based perhaps) SMS when your flight is boarding. This would be an MMS having both a copy of your boarding pass/QR code as well as an audible recording of your name, seat number, and confirmation number.

In doing this, you are now starting to integrate the context of the screens being used along with the activity that’s taking place. The person will now have a means of being notified on the screen they are in-use of, and the transport screen (the flight status/location) will be able to show a visual indicator of the percentage of those persons who have registered for the flight and checked in.

The problem with both the example and the issue is that they see multiple platforms as the issue when the problem is more related to the integration of data between screens and a person’s management of them. The interfaces have caused the issue more than the tasks have.

The interfaces of Wearable, Mobile, Tablet, and Composition screens are designed to siphon attention rather than direct it away from that screen into the context of another activity. Transport screens acutally do this well – they are large, designed to be read by all but the most illerate of populations, and usually to-the-point with the information most needed. If we were to take those conditions towards our Mobiles, Tablets, Surface computing items, then we’d less see people trying to juggle multiple devices, and more of them carrying on the communicative tasks which can be addressed at the behavioral-cultural level (which was probably that woman’s core issue).

Designing such interfaces and behaviors towards them takes a lot of work. Its a good bit easier to just say "add another layer to this," than fix where the problem is. That’s where the HBR article got to me. And where I think that too often, we derive our discussions towards what’s right/innovative or not from – not from actually speaking to and solving the core problems inherent in our systems and processes.

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