“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them”

– Steve Jobs, on Mac OS X’s Aqua user interface (Fortune, Jan. 24, 2000)

Between the times when I’m doing something useful with my home PC, I like to tweak settings, replace or add hardware and generally try to optimise things in an endless quest to make it start faster, run better or do tasks more quickly or easily. This inevitably leads to a point where the PC doesn’t work at all. The fun then is restoring it to working condition in an endless cycle of OCD madness.

Apple has gone a long way towards protecting me from my self-imposed tenth circle of suffering with their iPad tablet devices that prevent such levels of customisation. Their elegant design and inherent usability may take away some of the fun but they have also signalled a new world order in computing.

According to research company NPD DisplaySearch, more tablet computers will be sold than notebook computers in 2016. Microsoft is making an even bolder claim by predicting that tablets will outsell standard PCs during 2013.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1Designing for a tablet presents some interesting challenges, not least in the design of the user interface which needs to embrace the standards and paradigms of tablet computing. The most obvious of these is the replacement of mouse navigation with the less precise navigation of touch. The ability to manipulate objects directly by touch provides a more engaging user experience and if virtual objects are metaphors for real objects and actions then tasks become more intuitive.

A Great User Interface

A touch interface also means the need for larger controls and moving away from traditional menu based user options to consider for example, having translucent bars and fading controls that appear and disappear as the user interacts with the application. With limited space for larger controls we also need to think more carefully about what is needed on each screen and whether it is critical to what the user needs at the time. If not, then perhaps it’s critical in a different context, or maybe not at all.

A great user interface is not however centred on the capabilities of the device but on the way that users think and work. It makes the difference between an application that inspires users and one that is tortuous and demotivating to use.

The widespread use of tablets may provide the impetus for us to re-think user interface design in general and perhaps inspire us to move to the next level in human-machine interaction.

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