The Shiny, Shallow UI

My fascination with technology has always had its ups and downs, and I find it interesting that at least from a usability perspective it has been mostly the downs that have remained fairly constant with age.

Most people these days are apt to go on for hours on how computers have been shrunk and refined to become touch-driven, permanently connected entertainment machines (and it is not hard to find examples), but it seems to me that we’ve been stuck on the same metaphors for a while: the document, the folder, the message, etc.

Without wanting to seem like one of the Newton fuddy-duddies (pardon, one of the few people for whom the Newton actually made sense), it seems that we’re still far from a truly intuitive experience as far as handling data is concerned.

For instance, like many people have complained from the start, iPhone apps are still little silos unto themselves even after the addition of cut & paste, with hardly any way to share or manipulate common data – sure, there are now some basic data detectors for URLs and phone numbers, but manipulation of names, contacts, notes, etc. and (most importantly, their relationships) is still rather a hit-and-miss affair.

Or, rather, a complete washout if you’ve ever used anything like the Newton (and ignoring, for argument’s sake, its idiosyncratic input method).

This isn’t something you can just go ahead and fix, though. On one hand, it’s the result of decades of lack of imagination regarding the way developers think people should manipulate data on computers (i.e., “traditional” methods), and, on another, it’s probably the single hardest nut to crack considering that the kinds of data we manipulate on a daily basis today now tend to reside outside the machine we’re handling.

Still, one should note that the vagaries of cloud computing aren’t an excuse for me to be unable to, say, share my location, merge two address book entries or create a set of hyperlinked notes in a sane way on the foyer of the twenty-first century.

Another point to be made is that this criticism is not (by any means) limited to the iPhone, for other platforms aren’t showing much improvement, either.

  • Symbian is pretty much dead as far as data manipulation is concerned (yeah, sure, they’ve had a working clipboard and OBEX for a while, but apps have no real way of sharing structured data)
  • Android shows a lot of promise (with apps being able to publish and become aware of system-wide services for sharing links, images, etc.), but the UI is generally atrocious and the whole platform, despite promising, still an unknown quantity as far as long-term development and code reuse are concerned.

And, of course, each mongrel offshoot of Linux that happens to find its way onto a mobile device (including Maemo) does it differently, or (most likely) doesn’t do it at all.

UIs these days are, in many ways, shallower and less flexible than you would expect, for devices try to be all things to all people while adhering to existing convention as much as possible – two factors that drive developers towards throwing up bog standard phone dialer screens, music track listings and the usual multiple interpretations of what a “message” ought to look like on a device – usually a phone, and usually making a mess of things due to the conceptual nuances of how people expect SMS, MMS and e-mail to work like.

I’d say we have a problem here, because the way we use computers needs to change a lot more than just tacking on glitter or touch UIs – someone needs to seriously re-think the way we are currently using those things and take a step beyond.