Some pre-nostalgic thought here.
In the last 24h, the same thing happened to me twice. This is a clear sign from the universe that I should tell the story.
Roooarrr ! So I went crusading in women territory with my friend. We took an afternoon to explore the realms of facial beauty, a real event that happens every 5 years or so. Yes, really. We decided solemnly “It’s time we know. Let’s do it”. You would think women know this stuff naturally but it’s just like shell scripting, you need to learn it, it’s not loaded in your brain. And since I refuse to buy a book about facial beauty, I had to update from real world, it’s way more fun.
So we went to see the “professionals”. Apart from the cleansing lotion and some things we heard one day we really knew very little. So it was quite intimidating to go and ask the lady in the white coat, in front of the dozens of creams “So…what is all this stuff ?” We didn’t even know where to start. It’s indeed embarrassing. Fortunately, technology was around the corner, much to my delight.
I watched this movie last week : The final cut. I would define it as an organic SF movie. Probably my favorite genre. Same aura as Eternal sunshine, but unfortunately with a weaker scenario. Organic because it’s one of those movies where technology is part of life, and not obviously futuristic, I like that. In this movie, the computers were wooden, and their look and feel was very retro, old, almost anti-technological, it was very interesting to observe.
I like the idea that technology could be embedded in your furniture and fade in your environment. I like the idea that technology could be something not fragile, not a sign of wealth or advancement. I like the idea that technology could be for everyone.
However even if organic in its form, technology was still depicted in the movie as a threat or something evil like in most SF movies. But here its evilness was less obvious as it was not used as a weapon, its evilness was rather more ideological. Should you or shouldn’t you let your life be recorded on an organic implant? Well, what movie would ever tell you that you should?
The context : Privacy and technology
The movie treats the subjects of privacy and technology and life. The story starts in a future where it is the norm to let your life as you see it (not your thoughts) be recorded on a “Zoe” implant that was implanted in your body at your birth. This implant is semi-organic, so as you grow it becomes part of your body and it’s impossible to remove. People don’t know if they have an implant or not and know it very late, after 21 when “they’re old enough to understand”. Implanting the child is a choice of the parents, and the implant is a commercial product that you buy for your child. But you have to do it at the child’s birth. Interesting context, isn’t it?
Quiz question : do you know what that is ?
If you were not a software geek during the 70’s, you probably have no idea. As a tip though, you should know that this represents in fact a one line machine instruction. So, have you guessed? No idea? Well, in that case, I’m very happy to introduce you to the punched card ! Ok, as a highly cultured reader you probably knew, but in my case I had no idea until I discovered it during my blogging coma. It’s a big discovery ! When you know what I discovered you’ll gasp and marvel.
Context : living the future
I studied technology because it’s not from the past, it can only move forward. For me, it’s a great source of hope. Through the many dreams we had in science fiction we expressed how much we hoped for technology. We dreamt of a smart robot companion that would be our friend and personal helper. We dreamt of smart technology.
Today, technology is living with us. From the smart phone to the camera we more and more carry a personal device with us. We are able to rely on technology more than we used to rely on people. We use it to replace our memory, to find our way, to get information, to communicate…it has become our personal helper as we dreamt it. GPS, the Internet, all our online communication tools, those are today’s personal helpers. Those are today’s smart machines. Yes, machines are digging, but they don’t look anything like robots, and they’re not evil. Instead they’re just smart software that we interact with. It’s only the beginning.
We don’t realize we’re already at the point where machines are intelligent because we expected intelligence to come in the form of robots with human-like behaviour, we still live by the science fiction vision. But if you look around the machines already do many things that remind us of the future we expect : they are replacing cash desks, public transportation, they help you find the best price, the best way, they help you take the best decision. Machines are intelligent, but one thing they miss so we perceive their intelligence is interaction with us. Today’s machines have very poor interactions with us, they are mostly functional and there is almost no notion of user experience in the way they are designed. Since experience is what we as humans value in our interactions, we don’t perceive machines as intelligent, yet.
Definition : user interface
My view is that the perceived intelligence of a machine stems from its UI. UI is the characteristic that lets un-tech people interact with technology on a high level layer. As technology applies more and more to all kinds of fields, UI becomes fundamental to make sure that humans know how to interact with machines intuitively to fix them or control their behavior.
When technology emerged, there was no interface. The interface is an evolution of technology, it makes technology useful and usable to you. We already reached the stage where we managed to make the machines functional thanks to the software layer, I think now is the time to make the machines expressive and personal by honing their UI. We could start by working on applications, it’s simple enough. Then we could invent new interfaces.
Even if we’ve imagined intelligent machines as robots, intelligent machines have already started as software and the better the UI the more intelligent we will perceive them. That is the definition I put behind UI : the characteristic that makes humans interact with technology intuitively.
To achieve such goal of making technology “intuitive”, UI starts even before implementing anything and becomes an engineering principle : we tailor technology for our needs. While classic engineering is more about making technology functional, UI engineering has the goal of the interaction with the user, it integrates the user in the equation for building better systems. Every feature, every detail is guided by the idea that there is a user on the other end, there is us. In UI engineering, we build technology the way we want to use it.
Scope : human actions
As technology becomes closer to us, it will become our personal source of information. UI is what brings the information to us. We believe the interface. The better the UI, the better we understand the information. This is how I envision UI in general wherever there is information to convey (in a movie, in a speech, in the design of an object…) :
Then when the UI is interactive like in technology it becomes :
When the information is crucial, our understanding of it will determine our actions :
Then if we zoom in, in the context of technology :
Since machines are becoming the predominant holders of information, UI applied to technology becomes all the more relevant and important to guarantee that we get the right information to make the right decision. Bad UI can make some damages, and good UI can make some marvels. UI is important because it can directly influence our actions.
As we have entered the age of information, information becomes the fuel of technology, and UI becomes the way to bring it to us. UI starts today as basic interfaces but its scope is really larger, it will shape the future of technology.
Philosophy : making helpers
Technology is flexible, we can make it the way we want. Because it’s so flexible we often end up using it for services that just improve our comfort when it actually has the potential of changing lives. So what if we made it really useful ? As the data opens there is the hope that real relevant data is coming to feed services that will help everyone. There is also the hope that the data will be free for everyone to use.
There is always fear surrounding the rise of technology as if it was a threat for our freedom. But since humans create technology, they are responsible for its fate. We can’t control how a technology will be used, we will never control people’s intentions either good or evil, but we can influence how technology should be used with UI. The idea of UI engineering is to design technology the way we want to use it, it’s possible to design it responsibly as it moves forward, so let’s build technology to help us, not to format us. Let’s make helpers.