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Apr 27, 2018 | 7 min read

Trends

New interfaces: will we live in an age of digital opulence, or technological minimalism?

Anthony Marois

Senior Project Engineer


FABERNOVEL INNOVATE
When it comes to new interfaces, there are a lot. Six categories emerge. Our Senior Project Engineer Anthony has taken the time to list them. He suggests that they’re moving in two clear, but opposing, directions. So will the future be one of interface overload or interface-itis?

This month at FAVERNOVEL INNOVATE, we’re investigating new interfaces. How do we approach them? What do we mean by “interface?” What about a “new interface?”

As we’ve already discussed (see our opening article), our responses to these questions vary according to our approach, our occupation and our sensibilities, hinting at the ambivalence and diversity of realities and opportunities hiding behind this catch-all term.

To answer this question (or rather, questions) myself, it felt important to take stock of the current state of affairs. So I started by making a list of the various interfaces out there right now, trying to group them together and understand how today’s market is structured and what’s in store for the future.

This initial analysis left me with a list. There are six main types of interface:

  • Graphical interfaces (ones that we look at: mobiles, websites, graphical user interfaces (GUI))
  • Conversational interfaces (ones we interact with through text, whether chatbots or conversational agents, likeJam and Clac des Doigts)
  • Voice interfaces (ones that hear us and speak to us, For example Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google Home)
  • Intelligent interfaces (ones that guess what we want and promise the right interaction, like Google Assistant)
  • Connected objects (ones that we install in our homes or wear, like IoT devices and wearables)
  • Altered reality (ones that offer a different experience to the world around us, whether virtual, augmented or a mixture)

This initial list reveals two interesting points. Firstly, it says something about how I personally approach interfaces: it felt natural to categorize them according to perception, or the ways in which they interact with users (through sight, through conversation, through the provision of services etc.). The second, and more important, observation is that this list and my attempt at categorization actually reveal two underlying dynamics. It seems that interface development is now pulling in two different directions. Opposite directions, in fact.

These directions are shaping the evolution of interfaces, and will probably continue to do so in the future. Let’s take a closer look at these opposing forces.

 

Interface overload: everything’s an interface

I’ve given the first trend the strange-sounding name “interface overload.”

What I mean by this is very simple, and easily observed in our daily lives: the constant addition of new interfaces to the world around us. A new layer of interfaces is being laid over our immediate environment, creating new intermediaries between services and us.

There are many examples. I’ve selected five, each meeting a different need or context. Interface overload takes various forms:

  • In our homes, like with those connected buttons that provide an immediate and reproducible service when pushed (often ordering something). These include interfaces from Darty, Evian, taxi services, La Poste and Amazon’s well-known Dash button;
  • In our companies, like the Bouygues Telecom button that requests technical assistance;
  • In or on our products, Like the connected ice cube developed by Martini: placed in a glass, it detects when it’s nearly empty and orders another cocktail;
  • On us, with wearablesand other “quantified self” objects that “augment” us by giving us access to a new database of personalized information;
  • There are even interfaces which can be implanted into our bodies (careful, implanting your subway pass is probably not a very good idea, in case you were wondering).

These connected objects are increasingly invading our daily lives in order to bring us services or give us access to information that’s quickly becoming vital as we get better at, and more used to, using them.

However, interface overload isn’t limited to physical things and objects. It also exists in altered reality: digital objects have become common features of our daily lives, always there when we need them, helping us interact with services or get the information we’re looking for – for example by instantly translating texts written in foreign languages, or serving up information about a work of art or monument in overlaid format.

Microsoft Hololens: Extra interfaces in my lounge

We’ve also seen the rise of everyday objects that are supposedly augmented through the juxtaposition of a graphical interface on top of their existing functions. Here we find ourselves entering the world of total interfaces, several examples of which are listed by Golden Krishna in his latest book. The most iconic is Electrolux:

In 1999, the white goods brand imagined the fridge of the future and announced: “But there’s no doubt that when the Screenfridge hits the market, it will revolutionize daily life”.

TheScreenfridge? Simple, it’s a fridge with one of the iPad’s forerunners mounted onto it.

Imagine! Thanks to your fridge, you can:

  • Surf the internet
  • Receive and send emails
  • Manage your calendar
  • Watch television
  • Record short videos via an integrated camera and play videos recorded by your family
  • Know what’s inside (if you’ve put products in there individually, or even better if you’ve ordered them directly via the screen)
  • Compile your shopping list
  • Find recipe inspiration, etc.

And all this in 1999!

But although Samsung still believes in the product (and launched its latest connected fridge a few months ago), I doubt you have one in your kitchen. Almost 20 years after the Screenfridge, the fridge revolution still hasn’t taken off. Why not? Because it’s still, for the time being, a superficial idea, meeting poorly identified or badly thought-through needs and offering improbable or useless solutions. However, a connected fridge could become highly appealing and seriously useful if it responded to real problems, like by warning us of potential over-consumption of energy, or flagging up malfunctions and telling us when it needs repairs.

There are plenty of similar examples in our daily lives that often leave us skeptical of these strange, even counter-intuitive, innovations (in France, there’s a problem with interfaces that require users to enter text using non-AZERTY virtual keyboards). These products seem to be offering solutions – and sometimes not even good solutions – to problems that don’t really exist.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the risk posed by “interface overload” is that these interfaces, which are designed to make interactions possible, actually do the opposite. They thus end up becoming additional obstacles to be overcome, preventing users from quickly and simply doing what they need to do. Like using a screen to scroll through a long list of food stocked in the fridge, when you could just open the door and see for yourself…

It was in this spirit that designer Don Norman famously declared: “The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”

So should we abandon the concept of the interface? Is the best interface really no interface at all?

That’s what the other, opposite, trend in the interface world would appear to suggest.

 

Interface-itis: interfaces are disappearing

Because the second direction I’ve observed, again with a slightly strange name of my own invention, is “interface-itis”.

That is the desire to eliminate graphical interfaces:

eliminating screens in favor of text in conversational interfaces (those chatbots eating up the internet) or voice in voice interfaces like Siri and Alexa.

Sometimes the power of thought alone can do away with the need for screens- see for example those intelligent interfaces that let you control a drone with your mind. So screens can be replaced by… absolutely nothing! With these systems it’s all about proactivity and anticipating demands, something which Mathilde explained really well in her article on anticipatory design in 2016.

This is Zero UI – a very fashionable term at the moment and probably catchier than my “interface-itis.” It means seeking to eradicate all screens, and even devices, even if it means replacing them with “meta-objects” able to control and absorb everything.

A growing trend:

  • New “aggregator” bank cards offer to replace all of your bank cards with a single one (French fintech specialist Lydia has just launched its own version)
  • That same bank card can replace your public transport pass (something that’s been possible for a few months in Dijon and since 2014 in London, where 40% of transactions are already made this way)
  • And of course, your telephone can replace that bank card (wallets)

Curve: leave all your bank cards at home and use just one, Curve. Each payment can be linked to a particular card.

 

Prizm disintermediates Spotify: you can connect a speaker to your account and just use the speaker as an interface to access Spotify’s real value- the music

 

At home, Google Home and Alexa aim to replace things like switches, speakers and shopping lists (them again).
And others just want to replace all physical objects with their virtual alter ego.

In this trend, design and technology come together to build the best response to users’ needs, creating the most relevant interface for the service in question. And, thanks to an underlying trend for interoperability and the API-fication of systems, objects and systems are learning to communicate with each other, to the point where they will eventually absorb one another.

A company can therefore let its users access services in a range of ways, without forcing them to use their “historical” interfaces (web and apps). That’s the case with Lydia, which launched in 2016 on new conversational interfaces like Slack and Siri and recently announced the launch of a physical payment card. That might seem like a strange move for a company that launched in 2011 with a mission to make smartphone payment the new normal. But it’s totally strategic: “Basically, we’re trying to make using our app optional,”  which means multiplying the opportunities for using the service, without needing to go via the app.

What we have here is a race to the top of the “experience chain” to move closer, step by step, to end users. The goal is to become users’ favorite, go-to, most trusted interface, getting to know them better in order to deliver a better service.

In conclusion, “Stop using our site and our app and start using our services”. It’s up to us to reinvent interfaces to make using them simpler and more fluid, rather than the opposite.

Extract from the documentary “Minimalism,” available on Netflix

 

Interested in these subjects?

Contact Anthony
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