Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redesigning Life's User Interfaces

Inventors are really good at pattern matching, and we easily see how one thing is analogous to another.  At the same time, a lot of innovation starts with the discovery of a new understanding of an old problem.  Inventors often find themselves saying "We've been trying to solve a problem with regard to A, but we've already solved a lot of it with regard to B, and B is like A...."  Innovation by analogy.

I was listening to a discussion about voting rights last month when I realized that voting is the user interface for democracy.  Of course, it is only an analogy so it is imperfect, but it is close enough for us to immediately see a lot of the ways we need to improve voting.  Apple is well respected for their excellent user interface design, making their portable devices among the world's easiest devices to useTheir basic guidance for iOS applications is simple:

iOS 7 embodies the following themes:
 ● Deference. The UI helps users understand and interact with the content, but never competes with it.
 ● Clarity. Text is legible at every size, icons are precise and lucid, adornments are subtle and appropriate, and a sharpened focus on functionality motivates the design.
 ● Depth. Visual layers and realistic motion impart vitality and heighten users’ delight and understanding.
Imagine if politicians decided to write rules requiring that all voting systems follow those three simple rules.  Deference to content, meaning that the user interface never gets in the way of voting.  Clarity, meaning that the design is motivated by keeping the content clear and functional.  Depth, meaning that the users are able to better understand what they are voting on.

Another way to think about it is to ask yourself "if Steve Jobs were alive and in charge of setting up the user interface for democracy, what would it look like?"

 For one, he would fire anybody who tried to make it harder than it already is.  He would insist that any authentication system cause as little trouble for users as possible.  Once authenticated, he would want the authentication to remain valid as long as possible without requiring the user to re-authenticate every time.  He would insist on voters being able to use their interface to democracy at whatever time and place is convenient to them.  He would take steps to prevent fraud (just as Apple takes strong measures to prevent "Jail Breaking", or rooting of their phones), but he wouldn't cripple the entire ecosystem in the process.

Once we start to think about life in terms of user interfaces, we see that user interfaces are all around us.  Communication and shared activities are our user interfaces to our friends and family.  Meditation and self-reflection are our conscious mind's user interfaces to our subconscious.  Our physicians are our user interfaces to the health care system (or should be -- insurance companies are not good user interface designers).  Teachers and books are our children's user interfaces to education.  Tax forms are our user interfaces to the tax system.  Store clerks are our user interfaces to stores.  Judges, lawyers and juries are our user interface to the legal system.

Everything has a user interface.  Any time we have the opportunity to create or modify a user interface, we should be very aware of what we are doing.  Don't make things harder to use.  Don't add design elements just for the sake of showing off or making things harder.  In fact, Apple's three elements of deference, clarity and depth may be all we need to create a much better world.

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