Coming Interactions

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Denizens of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley don’t like to admit it, but we share the same competitive spirit with our entertainment-driven brethren in Southern California: We all live
by the rule of “What have you done for me
lately?” No matter where you go in this part of the world, everyone always wants to know what you’ve designed or built recently—and why
they should care.

This past year, that principle applied more than
ever, especially when it came to the buzz over social networking. Sure, the concept that technology can connect people in new ways has been percolating since the early days of The Well and America Online. But this year, social networking became the feature requirement for anyone with
a website. Nearly every client who came through the doors of my software-design studio had some sort of pitch related to community collaboration or wanted a feed placed smack-dab in the middle of the screen. “It’ll be just like Facebook! But for people who love dogs!”

We can be reasonably sure that any trends that peak similarly in 2009 will have something to do with mobile computing. Devices have finally gotten smaller while keeping most capabilities, thus becoming viable for the masses for watching video, reading long texts, and listening to
music. Prices will drop through the floor for the next generation of these new mobile devices,
and much of what we now do on laptops we will soon do on handheld devices.

Designers will be among the first to feel that change—and to define how it works for the public at large. What does this mean for us as a professional community, especially those of us working on digital products and services? Here are three trends that I think we can expect to grow from the continued evolution of internet-enabled mobile computing throughout the coming year.

Reductionism returns. Take a look at your design-history books and examine the period when commercial art transformed into modern graphic design—from the late 1890s through the early 1920s and into the 1950s. Michael Bierut said it best in the film Helvetica: When that typeface arrived on the scene, it must have felt to designers like a refreshing drink after crawling through a desert. All of the overwrought artistic flourishes on even the simplest of design problems were obliterated, leaving behind clear, clean, strong communication. We’ve seen this happen again on the web with The New York Times and the CNN website redesigns from the past few years; both are evolved forms of the Web 2.0 aesthetic. They represent a return to graphic design and communication fundamentals: strong grids, structured content aiming for clarity, and a return to design as a means of communication, first and foremost.

This trend will continue to evolve on mobile devices, as that pared-down approach solves a multitude of design and engineering problems in that arena. Less ornate graphics, cleaner code, and design that’s based more on web standards can be delivered quickly across wireless networks and loaded faster on devices where power consumption is a concern. That sort of clean presentation is also much easier to read and consume on smaller screens.

Good interaction equals good design. With HP’s TouchSmart and other touchscreen technology spreading throughout the market, designers better get ready to deal with the kind of screens and interaction concepts that were on display in the 2002 film Minority Report. They also need to learn that some kinds of interactive behavior—picture Tom Cruise raising his arms in front of a display screen as if he was about to conduct the Boston Pops—are just plain silly. Usefully designed interactions don’t require wild gestures just to move windows around. Case in point: It takes only two fingers to scroll through content on the iPhone. The importance of gestures and their relationship to screen design is highlighted by Apple’s push to patent the gestures for the iPhone. That move may seem out of proportion, but it shows that designers who learn the difference between useful and superfluous interactive gestures while also knowing a thing or two about clean, clear graphic-design aesthetics will be the ones in high demand in coming years.

Application-design fundamentals are making a comeback. Over the past decade, as designers were trained primarily to do work for web browsers, ideas from previous decades about how to design software got lost in the shuffle. Knowledge about core software design principles, such as direct manipulation, feedback loops, and selection methods, disappeared. But now that the web browser has grown up and the iPhone has boosted the popularity of touchscreen interfaces, rich interaction has become hot again.

But what is “direct manipulation,” you ask? It’s the simple premise of treating the mouse and the cursor on the screen as an extension
of your hand, so that you can point and click directly on a file icon, then manipulate it by dragging it to a trash-can icon to delete it. You know—the stuff that made the original Macintosh so cool in 1984. It’s all back in vogue now, on the web and in all the new phones that sport touchscreen interfaces. If you want to familiarize yourself with how core interaction behaviors work—and I think you should—I suggest finding a few volumes of the original Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines and giving them a good read. That’s right: Ring in the old for 2009. It may the best way to keep up with the times, even in Silicon Valley.