Augmented user interfaces (Review)

A while ago, I was thinking about trends in user interface design. How Apple had mastered the use of 3d elements in design, Google had gone for flat representations of 2d objects, and perhaps Microsoft had gone for something in between.

Now I came across an interesting article on user interfaces by John Palmer titled “Spatial Interfaces” 1 which I will now be reviewing. It is rather interesting as John says that game-like interfaces point towards a new way of interacting with software which improves intuitiveness, functionality, and thereby the user experience of software interfaces.

John gives an example of video conferencing software, where individuals partaking in a meeting are often represented as a grid of faces or avatars. He notes that this is not how meetings often are and clearly shows that if this were in a three dimensional space, users could be represented in an office environment, with different spaces and rooms. In such a scenario, a user can walk out and in of a meeting and even choose to interact with another user. While this is true, I understand that while looking at software from a spatial perspective might be good, not all software should be implemented in 3d simply for 3d’s sake 2.

He identifies that 3d interfaces do exist, having seen wide success in the gaming and entertainment industry. Going beyond gaming and environment, John says we should consider how best to leverage such interfaces in software design since recent advances in technology have made it easier to use these kinds of interfaces. Personally, it was very remarkable to me seeing a new way to envision software interfaces.

John notes that human interactions, tasks, and activities are often conducted in three dimensional, and relational spaces. He goes further to say that while some software do use real world objects i.e. information, surroundings, location, and relationships to intuitively suggest to users what can be done in the software interface or by a U.I. element, it seems that a good number do not take in cognizance the spatial relationships that often exist between an object and its surroundings.

He attributes this slowness in adoption to the difficulty in effectively representing 3d environments in a 2d space saying that this may change as 3d game design elements gain traction in mainsteam 2d applications. At this point, I think it is important to note that human computer interfaces are not made to be replica’s of the real world, but as means through which we effectively interact with an operating sytem and its applications 3. I think John is aware that large amounts of monies and innumerable amounts of man-power has been spent, and is been spent to achieve the current versions of human-computer interfaces in use today. While I believe that there is a place for designing with a spatial-aware mind, I do not think, it will simply solve all challenges faced in the design of user experiences 4.

As he said earlier, some applications already use real world elements, spatial information, and relationships in navigation, office meetings, app home screens, 2d games, copy and paste function, going back and forth between pages, etc.

Through the use of spatial information and relationships, John says that existing software can not only be augmented in terms of intuitiveness, but even transformed into an entirely new kind of interface. John ends by saying that it becomes necessary that we look beyond the competitive nature inherent in games, and consider the use of these game-like interfaces or spatial interfaces in conferences, reading, teaching, relaxation etc.

As with most product designers, I am familiar with the need to design interfaces that are intuitive to users through the use of established design patterns, universal iconography, etc. John in his article takes this notion a very big step further as he suggests that we design software that takes into consideration location, surroundings, and real world context of use. His article made me aware of the concept of spatial interfaces, and while I do not think it is all we need to design the next sets of user interfaces, I understand it is a necessary addition to a design repertoire.

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