Clicking, Touching, Squeezing: The Technology and Psychology of User Interface
Do you know a gadget geek--I mean a real gadget geek? You know, the type who has one of those huge C-band satellite dishes poking over the fence; the sort of person who reads Popular Science in bed and is wholly content to sit for hours programming station presets into a TV remote? Sure, we've all met someone like this, and probably most of us would admit that whatever social skills gadget geeks lack, they're good people to know when your VCR needs programming the day before the X-Files finale. Give these types any sort of electronica and they'll have it up and running in minutes, from computers to clock radios. Their thinking patterns seem to match those of the folks who write the manuals-but what about the rest of us? It has been only in the last decade that electronics and computer manufacturers have begun to seriously consider that the needs and talents of the average user are far different from those of the hard-core electronics fanatic. Not that we're dumb, but rather that we haven't had the opportunity to dedicate as many hours learning to speak to our machines as has the average gadget geek or computer hacker. Whether we're operating a personal computer, surfing the Web on a set-top box, or even goofing around on a TV gaming system, most of us sit down to our machines with a specific task in mind. We know what we want to do and don't have the time to learn a complex, text-based computer language or navigate several button menus to get there. Enter the user interface, gadgetdom's attempt to make it easier for the average Joe or Jane to talk directly to their machines. Your TV's remote control is a user interface, as is your microwave's button panel, your car stereo's removable face and the operating system on your PC or Mac. When well designed, the user interface can make a huge difference in the time it takes to cook a burrito or develop a spreadsheet. When an interface design is botched, it can lead to hours of thumbing through manuals and listening to Kenny G. on Tech Support's music-on-hold.
The Good and Bad
It's hard to read a technology magazine like this one and not be awed by the progress the electronics industry makes on an almost daily basis. But when you really consider the facts, we humans have been performing essentially the same old tasks with technology for decades. Whether it's a television, a stereo receiver, or a computer, we still operate on an input/output basis with our electronics. Basically we put something in, let the machine think on it for a moment or two, and then get something out-sound, a picture or a printed page. Years ago we turned knobs, today we squeeze remotes and tap keypads, but the common goal is to make it easier for us to talk to our home appliances. A software or hardware designer's goal is to create an interface that fosters an intimate union between you and your device. If you think you can't be intimate with a machine, just consider how much time you spend with your TV or computer. Like romance, the user interface is all about finding a special relationship with your machine. Some electronics manufacturers have entire departments dedicated to figuring out how we think-whether a red button should mean "stop" for example. Some computer manufacturers have leading psychologists on call to determine whether a running dog icon is identifiable as a "run" command, or whether a picture of a clipboard denotes "copy." Every electronic device in your home or office has an interface history that's uniquely its own. As your devices-especially your TV and your PC-begin to converge, the resulting user interfaces are developing a whole new look, feel and function. In many cases, the user interface is redefining the way we work and entertain ourselves.
Don't Get Up
Most of us probably wouldn't think of our TV remotes as particularly revolutionary. To us they're just little devices that get lost under the couch cushions. They let us turn up the volume, switch channels, maybe program the VCR, and that's about it. But consider how advances in remote technology have influenced TV content itself. Now that we no longer have to get off our rears to change channels, we're much more likely to flip away from a program during a boring scene, or switch between a sporting event and a movie during commercial breaks. TV industry types call this zapping and apply a similar term, grazing, to the activity of looking for something of interest here and there. The lowly remote has slowly revolutionized television, because it has made us TV users rather than passive viewers. In essence, the remote has given us all the attention span of hyperactive three-year-olds, a fact illustrated by the MTV-style quick cuts and jerky camera movements now common to programs of all types. Advertisers and producers know full well that we have those little clickers in our hands ready to zap their million-dollar commercial to bits, and they counter by targeting our restlessness directly with fast movement, bright colors and loud music. The fine art of channel surfing was actually born more than four decades ago, but at first didn't have the ease of use it does today. The first remote (suitably named "Lazy Bones") was developed in 1950 by Zenith. It used a cable that ran from set to viewer, operating an excessively loud motor that actually turned the tuning knob. Around 1955, TV manufacturers realized that a cable running across one's living room floor was probably not winning them points in the safety category, and the first true wireless remote was born. Early models operated by means of photocells in the TV cabinet , activated by a remote that was essentially an expensive flashlight. Consumers loved the new wireless units, but soon discovered that on sunny days the sun could activate the cells and cause the TV dial to start randomly rotating as if guided by an unseen hand. In the 60s, many TV manufacturers moved to battery powered ultrasonic remotes that communicated with the set through high frequency, inaudible sound waves. This method of signal beaming held the day until the early 1980s, when it was discovered that the same remote functions could be sent via a low-frequency beam of light in the infrared spectrum, or with radio frequencies (RF). Modern remotes operate on one of these two systems.
Just The Pictures, Please
If you were a computer user in the days of DOS, you know that software designers have taken great pains in the last decade to find out how we like to talk to our computers. In fact, it's the changing computer interface that has led directly to the current PC boom and that fuels the ongoing wars between Microsoft, Macintosh, and the U.S. government. Here again, changes in the user interface have helped dictate content. Early interfaces like DOS, CP/M and UNIX (which is still widely used today) were solely text-based. In order for your computer to perform any function, you had to understand its language and communicate with it by typing a command line. This interface kept the computer in the domain of those who were willing to spend hours learning functions like "dir /w /p c:\ docs123\*.txt". This changed in 1979 when Apple founder Steve Jobs made a historic fact-finding visit to a think-tank owned by Xerox Corp. named PARC. The photocopier company realized that paper communications would one day be replaced by computers, so they hired the best and brightest in computer programming and charged them with developing the interface of the future. Jobs remembers:
I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the graphical user interface, I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen in my life…(W)ithin ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day.
- "Triumph of the Nerds," PBS
Jobs quickly returned to Apple headquarters, scrapped several other projects in development and began working on what would become the Macintosh, the first mass-marketed computer with a graphic user interface or GUI (usually pronounced "goo-eey"). Unlike text-based interfaces, GUI's use a pointer (usually a mouse) and pictures to allow the user to start programs, move files, and enter data. Needless to say, the Macintosh and its interface were a huge success. By using icons instead of commands, operating systems like Mac's OS and Windows have brought millions of new computer users into the fold-including many groups that had been excluded completely, like kids and the disabled. In recent years, the Big Two have been retooling their products to find that computing sweet spot in which the interface is at its most intuitive for new users, but still allows computing veterans to work quickly and efficiently.
Face the Gap
As computers and television merge in products like WebTV and the many PC/TV units now available, software developers are still looking for the perfect user interface. This convergence of television and computer has also led to idea swapping between the industries. The newest TV remotes are based on the same principle as a computer mouse and use a trackball to direct a cursor across the screen and bring up menus. Internet browsers and savvy Web pages look more and more like TV, with channels and regularly scheduled programs. The challenge with hybrid PC/TV units is to give operators control of their televisions from the couch at distances that can typically span 10 feet or more. At that distance, an interface designer's two biggest hurdles are input and readability. The Windows operating system, with its icons and dialog boxes, is not well-suited for the experience. Windows CE was born to deal with this, but even then, how do you get typed or "moused" information into a set-top box from ten feet away? As regular readers of this magazine know, that question hasn't been definitively answered yet, but the currently leading technologies are devices like wireless keyboards that operate on infrared or radio frequency beams. There are several devices vying to replace the PC mouse, including couch-ready, wireless trackballs, gyro-mice that use gravity to determine the device's position in the air, and sophisticated pointing devices that track their position in relation to the cursor on screen. Net-top box interfaces demand perhaps the greatest attention to user interactivity. Many users may not have prior PC experience, and the set-top may be their only exposure to the Internet. The virtues of the new generation of set-top boxes, in fact, will be measured by how people respond to their interfaces. Like any consumer silicon-driven device these days, the software that runs it dictates the look, feel and function. An entire industry exists around interface design, or more specifically, the layer of software that supports it. It's a fierce battle with extremely high-stakes involving powerhouse companies like Microsoft, Sun and Oracle, and more specialized players like WebTV, Zilog, Planet Web, Power TV, NCI, Open TV and many more. Of the software entering the market, the most popular hybrid interface thus far has been WebTV's icon-oriented system. It uses intuitive icons (a mailbox for "mail," a house for "home") that will be familiar to both new users and veterans.
No matter how easy interface becomes, it's only a matter of time until the whole "point and click" phenomenon is pushed aside by voice recognition. Voice recognition is already in the mainstream with consumer software like IBM's ViaVoice, which allows people to speak to their PCs to control them. From here, it's only a matter of time until voice recognition makes it into the living room, allowing us to speak to our silicon-enhanced televisions to change channels, change volume, program our VCRs, watch movies, play games, maybe even get a beer from the fridge. With voice recognition, not only could we caress our remotes, but we could speak lovingly to them as well. Perhaps our mates would begin to wonder about our sanity, but no matter. Maybe they'll take a lesson.
Charles Mohnike is a staff writer for Smart TV