Wednesday, April 27, 2005

What will be the usability needs of the future?

Well, I haven't posted in a long time -- finals will do that to you. Speaking of finals, in my human computer interface design course, one of the questions on the final was to consider what the design challenges will be for future interface designers. I thought this was a very difficult question to consider -- it's always difficult to predict the future-- but here was what my stab at this question turned up!

I'd be interested in hearing any comments--what will be the interface design challenges of tomorrow?

My exam answer:

This is a very difficult question! It’s easier to know what needs to work or be designed to meet current needs with current available technologies. It’s much harder to think of what the future technologies will be, and what the future needs of users will be. Trying to predict this is usually futile—because technologies develop so quickly that it’s hard to anticipate what will be available! However, this is a great question to think about, and I’d love to hear what others in the class have to say. I guess I’m giving a disclaimer that I almost feel foolish trying to guess what the future designs will/should entail!

One thing that is interesting is that in the past, the biggest design challenge has been to provide more in less space. For example, how to provide more computing power, more speed, and more memory in smaller boxes. However, this really isn’t as big of an issue now, and will be even less so in the future. The cheapest laptops still have plenty of computing power for 95% of the users. Only the most demanding users need more computing power and memory. So I believe future designs will focus less on “this computer (or technology) is faster/more powerful/etc” and more on what unique things the technology can do. These are some of the issues that I think tomorrow’s designers will face:

1. Developing ways to handle large amounts of information
It’s becoming pretty obvious that the major dilemma of our decade is not having access to enough information, but being able to handle all of the information available. More and more we’re going to need technologies designed to help us find what we want and need instantly (and not without hoping that what we want is in the first 20 results of a possible million). We also need technologies that help us find things we don’t know we want, but would be glad to have if we knew about. Here I am not talking about commercial products—although businesses have jumped onto this idea more quickly than other services—I am talking about finding the article I didn’t know existed, but which would be just the thing I’m looking for, or being alerted to the weather in a town I plan to drive through next week.

The potential of the Semantic Internet, and of artificial intelligent computing, will allow for more customizable searching and handling of information. What we will need are interface designs that provide more information for users without providing too much. These designs need to be very intelligent, and intuitive so they fit users’ minds like a glove, so that everything is where they would expect it to be and they can find the right article, image, etc. more quickly.

2. Developing ways for people to have access to what they want/need at anytime/any place
The iPod and other mp3 devices are extremely popular right now. Why? Because you can have any of your 200 cds or 50 audiobooks available anytime, anywhere, with only one restriction—that you have the iPod with you and a way to listen to it. The biggest rush right now is to develop the best desktop/internet search engines. Why? So people can find what they need, when they need it. I think this will continue to be one of the biggest design challenges in the future because we are still hindered from the goal of “anything, anywhere, anytime.” For example, I have an iPod full of music, but when it’s at home and I’m at school, I have no access. I may have TIVO full of favorite movies … but only available at my home. I may also have every document I have ever created … but only on my hard drive.

We need less limitations in getting the media that we need or want! I think future designs will allow you to put earbuds in your ears (without cords) and through Bluetooth or wireless technology be able to access music from your iPod at home. Another example is to have one iPod stream wirelessly the entire database of music to little speaker/receivers in every room of the house. So I could be upstairs listening to Bach while my wife is downstairs listening to Rock—all from the same iPod. I’d like remote desktop type of technologies to become more powerful, but also more secure, so I can access any document on any of my computers (home, work, wife’s computer, etc.) from any other computer, palm, portable, etc. I’d like to be able to access the commercial software that I’ve paid to have installed on my home computer, but be able to access it from other computers (such as at school).

Soon we will need portable video to be as accessible as portable audio and photos. Perhaps a device that will store hours and hours of video, and then display through a small screen, or better yet, project onto flat surfaces or connect through wireless/Bluetooth technologies to small, paper-thin screens that can be kept in your wallet. You could then stick these screens on any wall, table, car seat—anywhere you wanted to view your video.

3. More secure access to private information
Security and privacy may be the most important design and technology issues of the future. Already we are at the point where the potential is available to do a lot of neat things that many do not do because of security issues. For example, there are many things I am reluctant to participate in online because I am concerned about the security of my private information. Making online interaction more secure and private will be THE most important issue in the near future, because I believe we can’t really progress much more until this issue is resolved. We need technologies and designs that can recognize who we are, and match us with our profiles. This may seem Star Trek-esque, but what I’m thinking about is being able to sit down at any computer, and having the computer somehow know who I am, so I can do anything online at that computer and have the interaction be secure.

4. Phones have got to be more usable!
The newest innovation I see is a phone that is actually easy to use for anything other than calling people. We have the technology to make phones be computers, complete with all our media, hard drives, anything you want! We can stick 40 gigabytes on something as small as a phone, so the potential is huge to make one device that does everything you need—including call people (I know we have palm pilots that can call people, but they’re not very popular). Why don’t we have this yet? Because phone number pads are the most unusable thing on the planet for anything except calling people. Someone’s going to get smart and design a really usable phone/mobile device that will become as popular as the iPod is now. Speaking of iPod, why not throw a scroll wheel on a phone—that would be a start!

I know I have talked a lot about technology design, more than interface design. It’s really hard sometimes to divide the two because all technology needs an interface for us to be able to use it, and all interface designs are useless unless they have the backend technology available. So they are in way the same thing. I have talked about the future of technology design because the technology needs to be there first, and then once we know what we can do, we can design interfaces so humans can use the technology.