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User Interface: The Convergence of the Web, Mobility, and the Classic Model

January 7th 2014

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The "human-machine" interface, the device that allows you to interact with your favorite equipment, such as your smartphone, is the crucial component that determines the efficiency and satisfaction you can derive from it.

During a recent session on my banking portal, I noticed that new options had been added to the main page, that some had been moved, that the wording of some other options had been changed… I then sketched a smile, the result of a kind of mixed emotion. The user in me: "Shit, where's the function? I have no time to waste." versus the software designer in me: "Um, well thought out! That makes a lot more sense."

I followed the subject closely for a few years, but now it seemed ripe: the design of interfaces for web and mobile applications has reached a pivotal stage—a step historically experienced by traditional applications.

In my opinion, the challenges of web and mobile interfaces should realign themselves into the mainstream of thinking within 3 to 5 years with the apparent convergence, in terms of management, of multiplatform and multi-device applications. I offer you here my vision of things regarding the potential impacts to be considered for the product designer.

While having to be certainly aesthetic, web and mobile user interfaces will now face more than ever the paradox of balancing "Simplicity" and "Efficiency".

You may notice that my post does not give the necessary importance to the notion of "aestheticism". This omission is intentional to avoid getting bogged down in tricky questions such as: What is beautiful and what is not? You love green, but what about your neighbour?

Aesthetics is a relative concept, and therefore subjective. Collective references exist, but the subject would require a post in itself. On the other hand, this subjectivity calls for the ability to personalize interfaces, a notion that I will incorporate in passing.

What is Simple is Effective... Uh, Really?

Since the early 2000s, the notions of simplicity and efficiency have been strongly challenged, but above all, too often mixed with reflections such as "A simple interface is necessarily efficient" or the opposite "An efficient interface is necessarily simple"—the first of the two being the more common.

First, if simplicity and efficiency are cartesian concepts, measurable, the fact remains that they are highly relative according to the user.

In addition, we can only measure results. In the case at hand, we can say that it is about achieving two basic objectives:

  • Do a task to achieve a desired result.
  • Do the task in question as quickly as possible.

From there, let's immediately see the distinction to be made:

  • The ability to do a task through an interface is related to its degree of intuitive interpretation to take the necessary actions. If the user cannot easily understand or deduce these actions, the likelihood of no results and operational bottlenecks increases.
  • The straightforwardness and speed with which the task can be completed via the interface determine the interface's efficiency. To ensure we're in the same place, if the interface is simple but doesn't lead to the right task... It's problematic!

What are these findings hiding? The nature of the tasks and the user's knowledge automatically predispose them to perceive what they consider simple and effective.

Add in the psychological dimensions (what I know seems simpler to me) and real-world unpredictability (I have to do several things simultaneously). We get the backdrop that largely explains why the notions of "simplicity" and "efficiency" have lost their credentials among product designers as much in recent years.

Adapt the Ergonomics of the Machine to the Skills of the Driver

Given the extreme variability of operational contexts, it becomes essential to properly profile your end-user as early as possible. This information is crucial when designing the interface of a function or general principles of navigation of a product.

The use of focus groups is a necessary step to allow you to establish reliable guidelines directly linked to your future user.

In addition to the relevant demographics (average age, gender, educational background, relevant experience, etc.), what strikes me as a basic element to establish is the operational profile of the target user. Two aspects should be quantified at this level:

  • Repetitive or variable tasks. In terms of the number of typical interactions with the application, what proportions (%) target the same task per day?
  • Operational contingency rate. How many times a day are you interrupted for one task to do another different task?

Static Interface, Dynamic Interface, and Others

Without concluding that there is a direct link, their operational profile strongly influences the preferred mode of interaction with a user.

A static interface usually lends itself better to a more repetitive working environment. A static structure facilitates "simplicity/efficiency" optimization.

Static interface use is also the basis of the success and penetration of Web and mobile interfaces from the 2000s. When the objective is to do only one or a few tasks, the interface of this type of application can become highly static, efficient and simple.

Add the graphic possibilities of the day and limited functional options, and you also get more flexibility to create aesthetics. Steve Jobs has eloquently demonstrated this: simplicity has never been so beautiful, refined and attractive!

For their part, dynamic interfaces have their full potential in management contexts where the unforeseen is king. Contexts in which the user must constantly modify their work plan. The key here is the notion of adaptability to the unpredictable situation, the flexibility of operational adaptation.

Historically, the dynamic interface is commonly referred to as a "Context-Sensitive User Interface". It emerged in the 1970s with the concept of Graphical User Interface (GUI).

Without obliterating the notion of "Simplicity", the main issue of this type of interface becomes efficiency, the speed with which the user can move from one work context to another and the speed with which they can return to their initial context, which should not be neglected. To use manufacturing management terms, we could say that these interfaces are specialists in "setup time" reduction.

We must also underline the recent introduction of the concept of adaptive interface, used more particularly in the Web world under the better-known label of "Responsive Web Design". However, this should not be confused with the concept of a dynamic interface. The distinction is not an obvious automatism to the layman, I agree.

The adaptive interface concept addresses the consistent quality of the user experience within the variability of the hardware platforms operated by the web or mobile application. If you change equipment, we make sure that you remain in a logical and efficient navigation context.

This happy mix of technological possibilities finally leads us to the strong trend of the customizable interface. This approach allows users to create their own flavour of "simplicity/efficiency", which increases user convenience and performance, both aspects of maximizing productivity. The trend will only increase at this level.

And for the future, the interface with adaptable morphology is certainly essential for fluidly combining different modes of interaction (static, dynamic) for the same user. Management dashboards are perfect targets for this type of approach.

But Still…

This panoply of possibilities leads us to believe that everything is in place to continue our ascent on the individual and corporate productivity curve. But there is a phenomenon likely to impact the progress of web and mobile applications and, therefore, affect many technology users worldwide.

To grasp this phenomenon, we must first put into perspective that since their active penetration in the 2000s, the principles and concepts of interfaces for using Web and mobile applications have been questioned very little in relation to, by example, the historical evolution of GUIs. The market and the customer have dictated the route to follow in the absence of critical operational requirements.

Therefore, the universe of the Web and mobility has developed practically in parallel as if a space-time cut had occurred in the continuum of historical technological evolution.

The requirements were simple and/or the technological possibilities were, after all, limited in large part by the speed and the cost of the bandwidth. But the gradual reduction in communications costs combined with the innovations brought about by hardware virtualization is now opening up new horizons for Web and mobile applications. These new management horizons bring with them their imperatives.

It is a natural human tendency to want to do more with our tools constantly. The users of computer technologies are no different. They are continually looking to do more, to get more. And this reflex is even more present in the specific context of increasing organizational productivity.

The application, which until now offered only a few options (call, send an email, pay an invoice), should, therefore, in principle, be more and more functionally improved.

As the access to a function requires a visual element (hyperlink, button, icon, etc.) for its activation, natural evolution can lead us to a beautiful Christmas tree in terms of interface.

Beyond a specific limit of visual load, an interface automatically loses simplicity and efficiency. It is known that humans can only concentrate on as many visual elements as possible at a time, usually 3 to 5, to make a decision and to interact quickly. As simplicity and efficiency are two necessary conditions to justify the usefulness of an application, it is essential to go back to square one if the overload of an interface degrades these aspects.

It must be deduced here that increasing the functional capacity of an application may lead to an exercise in the interface's functional structuring, which can, unfortunately, sometimes be associated with a loss of simplicity for some users.

For the Application Designer

Therefore, the designers of web and mobile products will be faced as never before with the dilemma of balancing "simplicity/efficiency" in the coming years. They must anticipate this trend to guarantee the development and sustainability of their applications.

For some designers, it is also possible that the phenomenon produces fewer waves than expected. If you target a user with very specialized tasks, then the static interface will retain its strategic positioning. In other words, if your product does not have a natural vocation for a large operational deployment, you are probably out of reach.

For others, here are some suggestions to simmer as part of a realignment strategy, if necessary:

  • If it turns out to be possible to provide you with a clear and precise product road map, this should allow you to guarantee the fluidity of your interface and avoid the main commercial pitfall, that is, to disappoint an existing clientele following radical changes.
  • If the reflex of incremental changes is tempting for the sake of time, keep in mind that the consistency of your user interface is a significant factor in the speed of adoption of your new vision by your users. The inconsistency in the mechanisms of interaction can be seen as an unfinished or incomplete product.
  • Think a lot before doing a fundamental, comprehensive overhaul of your UI. Make sure you keep the personality of your product, its philosophy, in short, all the elements that have contributed to its positioning concerning your competition. Becoming someone other than you’ve never been isn’t impossible, but it takes communication skills.

In Conclusion

When the smartphone is the quintessential technological extension of the human being, making them a pseudo-cyborg, the users will continue to ask for more and get more out of their technological tools.

Therefore, web and mobile applications will inevitably be confronted with new interface ergonomics issues as their functional capacities improve.

When the smartphone presents itself as the unifying device of all needs (film, TV, bank, newspaper, diary, telephone, purchases, timesheet, etc.), the interface issues for all technological platforms combined are now united under the same research and innovation stream.

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