Monday, April 6, 2015

Taming the Screen-Eyed Monster

Golden Krishna, The Best Interface Is No Interface

Design professional Golden Krishna has become frustrated with graphical user interfaces. The novelty has worn off putting every important function into a smartphone app, and the ubiquity of touchscreens has made ordinary people subservient to their technology. Think about it: does your refrigerator really need WiFi compatibility and a streaming Pandora feed?  Even better, is driving enhanced when drivers have in-dash Facebook demanding their attention?

Krishna comes from a background in User Experience (UX), a design paradigm emphasizing how we can maximize users’ positive response to new technology. This often parallels with another discipline, User Interface (UI), which specifically focuses on graphical user interfaces—or as they’re called in the industry, “interfaces.” These two disciplines have become so entwined that many job-seeker websites now advertise UX/UI as a single field, confining end-user experiences to a screen.

No, says Krishna, this is wrong. This attitude encourages sameness, resulting in finished products not sufficiently differentiated, and poorly attuned to user needs. Design meetings begin with enthusiastic goals to re-envision some task we all undertake; they finish by creating another smartphone app, impractical website (with fifty-page usage agreement), or another screen stuck somewhere it doesn’t belong. Graphic interfaces on curbside trash cans? Really?

Rather than repeating past success, Krishna advocates three core principles:
  1. “Embrace Typical Processes Instead of Screens”
  2. “Leverage Computers Instead of Serving Them”
  3. “Adapt to Individuals”
Golden Krishna
Krishna refines these three principles into new outlooks on the design process. He asks his colleagues questions that have gone largely unasked: is this process better, more efficient, more useful than what came before? (Is a smartphone app to unlock your car more practical than your key? No.) Can simple, screen-free technology make difficult tasks simpler? Can household technology learn user preferences—without cumbersome, insulting screen apps?

In some respects, Krishna’s vision overlaps with prior visionaries and critics; Jaron Lanier springs to mind. Both inveigh against technological passivity. Computers and other doodads are fine, Krishna asserts, if they serve human needs and make human life simpler. But addictively colorful phone apps, unhelpful multistep processes for simple tasks, and ad space colonizing screens like Spanish moss has made life palpably less simple and enjoyable.

Technology is capable of learning human needs. While it’s impossible for designers to create separate experiences for the millions, potentially billions, of individual users, technology is capable of adapting itself. Krishna cites several examples, from a simple fuzzy-logic home thermostat, to Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that beat Garry Kasparov, of devices and systems that see human uniqueness as a virtue, not a bug.

To emphasize his message, Krishna has made this book a paragon of design. Though running north of 200 pages plus back matter, Krishna’s text is actually much shorter, with visual diagrams, photos, dialogs, and non-traditional use of white space. He writes with the compressed energy of a TED talk, and uses his book to demonstrate his principles. He doesn’t wallow in nitty-gritty tutorials. Instead, he invites readers to share an evolving vision.

A prior reviewer wrote: “Make no mistake: This is a sermon. It's not a practical guide. It's not a set of concrete steps to improve.” If I may speak for Mr. Krishna, that’s essentially the point. UX/UI has become dominated by step-by-step instructions and closed-process approaches, which render customers and designers both functionally passive. Krishna speaks against that technique, demanding content creators and experience designers remain actively engaged with their product.

Krishna’s stated principles will undoubtedly receive much criticism. Not just from those whose career paths rely on tech companies doing what they’ve always done, either. He repeatedly stresses the importance of design ethics, of prioritizing users’ well-being above “monetizing eyeballs.” Can you imagine, say, Mark Zuckerberg telling shareholders that this quarter’s dividends have gone down because he’d rather do right by users than sell ad space?

Me neither.

That said, he’s not wrong. Today’s epidemic of people glued eyes-first to laptops, tablets, and phones didn’t just happen; UX/UI professionals designed it. Enrapt audiences are good customers and, more accurately good product which corporations can tranch and resell to ad peddlers (see also Marc Goodman). Much as I enjoy Facebook, it’s impossible to deny that first-generation coders didn’t have our best interests in mind.

No, this isn’t a how-to book. It’s a vision of what Golden Krishna believes computers should be capable of. It’s a manifesto for future designers to apply themselves to making technology simpler for us, not dominant over us. It’s a vision of a future in which I’d willingly live.

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