The UI is the Hero

by Jon Follett

Is the age of ubiquitous computing is upon us? We may not be living yet in William Gibson's plugged-in future, but there's no doubt that we're absolutely dependent on the digital realm. From tablets to smart phones to laptops to car navigation systems, we always seem to be connected. The digital life is everywhere we go, and software is our intermediary between physical reality and the bits and bytes. Over the past two years, the massive rise in popularity of mobile devices has changed the frequency, duration, and level of engagement of our digital existence. No longer is digital interaction reserved for those specific times when we huddle around the glow of desktop monitors. Mobile has made software integral to and embedded within people's lives, but the convenience and pervasiveness of mobile computing is only part of the story.

People's attitudes towards software are changing, as are their expectations about how it should work. It is commonly accepted that our day-to-day reality is infused with the digital, and this connected lifestyle has reached far beyond the world of knowledge workers and other geeks. This is a seismic shift in our total cultural conception of computing.

Software is part of the continuous thread of our lives now, and more and more, the user interface defines how we interact. Software's ascendency in the public mind is clearly reflected in, of all things, our television advertisements, which gives us a view of the digital zeitgeist. Aside from the many advertisements for the iPhone, iPad, and various Android devices that dominate the airwaves, there is more interesting and telling evidence. One example in particular can be found in the television ads of two financial services companies, who, in a fist fight for new accounts, have turned, not to a celebrity or executive spokesperson to entice stock traders to register for their system but to the user interface of their trading software. Both Fidelity and E*trade have recently promoted their professional style trading systems with ads touting the quick response, ease of use, and information visualization capabilities of their platforms. In these ads, the narrator is secondary to the sleek curves of the UI chrome and the flowing lines of the live charts and graphs.

But strangely enough, it's this Michelob commercial that illustrates just how deeply computer interactions have embedded themselves into our consciousness. In the advertisement, a man goes through the activities of his day, using the gestures normally associated with a tablet interface to move items, transform his surroundings, and generally improve his life. While I've never tried gesturing with my hand in the hopes that I could magically move objects out of the way, there are many times I've caught myself half expecting an "undo" option in the real world.

As digital products continue to grow in popularity, and ease of use, beauty, and usefulness have become increasingly important, the software user interface has become the key element and product differentiator. The sophistication of the average consumer is growing, and in this new understanding of software the user interface is the hero. For digital product designers, then, our opportunities are many, but our work is definitely cut out for us.

Topics: Design, iphone, software design, iPad, Ideas, Analysis, Blog, ui, user experience