The supported vocabulary of user experience has been surprisingly stable over the last two decades. I believe that over the next 10 years we will experience a more exciting journey.
“Supported vocabulary” in the first sentence of this post refers to interaction models and design patterns that are embodied and reflected in the UX platforms and ecosystem, in form of APIs, tools and experienced practioneers. It is certainly possible for UX designers to go beyond the supported vocabulary of any given platform – but generally, it is expensive and painful to do so.
Apple’s Macintosh, when it was released almost 25 years ago, was the first mainstream realization of many of the UX paradigms we still use today: Desktop, windows, dialogs, menus, and a set of standard controls that has not changed dramatically since, on Mac or PC. Behind color and better visuals, a lot has stayed the same. This is of course not all bad: Familiarity and established standards have many advantages.
The rise of the web has been one factor to foster change, in particular by ignoring most distinctions between content and user interface. Adobe Flash has given its own flavor to this, with a runtime that introduced the notion that runtime graphics could be designed, rather than programmed against an API.
Just in case these last 25 years felt as short to you as they felt to me – look at a very young Bill Gates in this ad from (I believe) 1984:
The Next Decade?
If the last 25 years of UX have been a bit quiet sometimes, how is the outlook for the next decade? I believe it will be an exciting journey.
A number of factors are coming together to make big changes in UX possible and desirable – and necessary. For example:
- We routinely deal with volumes of content, data and information that were almost utopian even a decade ago
- What we do with computers has exploded in complexity
- Information – and computers – want to be mobile
- Generational change – a new generation writes its own code of social and interaction rules
- There are also a number of technical factors that play a role in enabling and sometimes driving change, such as availability of enough computer power in devices accessible to a wide range of consumers to handle sophisticated presentation layers, the emergence of cheap, very large displays, and the rise of mobile computing.
Also, if anybody still doubted it, the world of computing has now reached its post-technical phase: Technology is not the core driver for an industry any longer, fascination of the feasible has been replaced with the emotions of desirability. My favorite analogy is the history of the automobile.
Early automobiles were clearly less safe, robust and comfortable than their horse-powered counterparts. Yet fascination with the feasibility of the automobile captured early adopters. Fast forward to the world of today. Cars are not generally purchased for reasons of technology. Sure, they need to work, but generally it is simply assumed that the underlying technology is there.
Computers are in that same boat today. For example, when I started using computers for making music more than two decades ago, I accepted every discomfort just because I could do things I could never do before. The pain was a price for feasibility that I was glad to pay. But today, feasibility is almost taken for granted. What matters is that software does its job well, in a comfortable, desirable, delightful manner.
This, in a few words too many, just meant to say that UX matters, much more than it used to. The vocabulary if user experience will need to evolve to match the expectations of a wider part of humanity taking advantage for computing in manifold ways.
Betting on the Future
Aspects of that change are already on the way. Products such as Microsoft Surface, Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft Seadragon (or Deep Zoom as the technology is called in Silverlight) and immersive 3D worlds as in Second Life and several others have a common thread, introducing interaction paradigms that are freeform, roaming, unbound and direct. But I am also pretty sure that each of these technologies is just a pale foreshadow of the things to come.
Also, Microsoft has created an interesting video about a future vision for health care that is worth looking at in this context:
To close, here are a few of the bets on the vocabulary of user experience that I would make, in no particular order:
- UX today will be much more dynamic than today. Today, we tend to think of user experiences as static Photoshop comps made interactive. Tomorrow, motion graphics will be a primary influence on the vocabulary of user experience.
- Video content delivery on the Internet is an accelerator for this trend. Motion graphics is core to the video content value proposition, and on the Internet it offers the opportunity to go interactive, local and close up personal. UX beyond just content.
- The division between content and user interface, between document and chrome, that is one hallmark of the traditional UX vocabulary will continue to erode. The web has been the primary driver of this trend so far, but I believe active content will become the rule all across the board.
- The need to visualize and present large amounts of information will drive user experiences that handle navigation through these large volumes of data much more effectively. And this “information” is not just scientific and business data – it also includes all the digital artifacts of our personal lives (side note: our photo collection contains now over 120,000 pictures).
Simple scrollable document windows and explorer grids are barely coping today. Zoom-able UI techniques, with explicit support for efficient level of detail management, 3D, direct manipulation of content might all be part of the solution for this. Much larger, cost effective displays will provide the canvas for such solutions to draw on.
- 3D will finally begin to become an established medium for mainstream UX. Some believe in an imminent revolution that brings SecondLife-style immersive environments to every desktop and device. I personally expect much more hybrid interfaces that smartly combine 2D and 3D techniques, with 3D used in a wide range of scenarios, including information visualization, visual gimmicks, as a primary interaction technique, and eventually in immersive forms.
- New interaction techniques from multi-touch (as popularized by Microsoft Surface and Apple’s iPhone) to speech and vision will become mainstream.
There is a great opportunity for UX platforms, tools and the ecosystem of UX as a whole to define the interaction models and design patterns for the user experiences of tomorrow. I personally am very excited at the pace of innovation in software product design ahead.
What do you expect from the future of UX? I would love to hear from you.