Not every designer knows what “cognitive ergonomics” is, but all of them have at least once heard the term “interface”. Well, cognitive ergonomics –among other things– tries to study and explain how users approach interfaces. Despite it’s short history, this science has, during the last decades, achieved a key role in the design process without perhaps designers being consciously aware of it.
As a matter of fact, anytime that we want to design technological devices, products providing buttons or products with any tangible interaction with users, we are actually designing interfaces. The latter is indeed defined as, translating the words of Professor Francesco Di Nocera, “the parts devoted to the dialogue with the user, receiving inputs and creating outputs”. Never thought about that?
As you can now imagine due to the rise of new technology, interfaces have recently deeply changed their aspect and direction. We can summarize these directions following Weiser’s, Ullmer’s and Ishii’s forecasts of the topic:
1) ubiquitous computing or tangible interaction
2) wearable interfaces
For a quick reminder of the history of the interface’s path, you can read the following paragraphs, otherwise you might want go directly to the explanation of the two directions below.
The invention of the first computing machine is the relevant beginning of the interface’s path. Initially, people’s interaction with the machine was quite limited. They could only manually insert the punched cards, containing the computation into the machine in order to start it. On the other hand, the users were required to have a deep knowledge of the machine. In the late 70’s we see the beginning of “personal computing” and so the definition of the idea of interface. As a consequence no knowledge of the operating principles of the computer was anymore needed . Finally the introduction of Apple and Windows operating systems concludes the interface definition process, reducing the users “fatigue” and “mental workload” considerably .
The experts have a clear idea of the interface’s path. The first goes towards the surrounding. Even if the devices have big dimensions, they can vanish in the space, becoming “transparent” technologies. How is that possible? Think about the advertising billboards all around the city. Sometimes we don’t even notice them or we read them without activating our mental reading process. The same happens with digital big devices. The space becomes the environment in which technologies can provide output and receive our input without us recognizing it. You can think about any digital screen, information point, interactive wall and table and any surface connecting the physical and virtual world.
The second direction aims towards the body. We can wear devices, we can always carry them with us and use them. In this case the dimensions are considerably smaller and the usage of the objects is integrated in our daily life. Those kinds of devices become “transparent” because we don’t care about their functional process. We simply use them.
Both approaches have, in any event, limits. For example, how nice is it to kill time playing with a big touch screen while waiting for the bus? But what happens with the drivers? Can they be distracted? Yes they can and in the north of Europe it was necessary to remove some screens due to security reasons. But maybe the most evident limit is privacy. This topic has recently been discussed by many experts and there are many papers on it available (my suggestion is: http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~saul/wiki/uploads/CPSC7018108/boundaries_for_privacy.pdf).The point is that with such remarkable devices, it is really easy to show our digital actions publicly or to catch the indiscreet look of the passers-by. So how can designers constrain privacy problems?
The wearable technologies have a more ergonomic limit. They all tend to “miniaturization.” The advertising world wants us to carry as many items with us as we can so that we somehow start considering them part of our outfit. In order to be able to carry as many as we can, they all became smaller and smaller during the last 10 years. It is obvious that for anatomical reasons the miniaturization process can not continue to infinity, unless in the future the human body dimensions will develop and adapt to the technology– what we don’t wish for.
So can all the limits be overtaken?
Lately designers from all over the world are trying. The tendency seems to be the deconstruction of the functions and the actions. This means that:
1) Big screens won’t allow people to do private things, but only useful ones like finding local information or preparing a set of infos to be sent directly to their smartphones, to be looked at privately. (http://www.ee.oulu.fi/~vassilis/files/papers/interact11b.pdf)
2) Smartphones won’t be that smart anymore but return to the roots and allow people doing and receiving calls only, in order to became smaller.(http://www.thelightphone.com/#getthelightphonefirst)
Once we have found out what interfaces and their limits are, the real challenge starts . How will we design interfaces in the future? Can this become a relevant question for our next design projects?