Thursday, February 02, 2006

Focusing On the Interface

Putting design where it really matters

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, January 13, 1999 -- [Image]
Today's product designer can't help wondering
about dematerialization, the ability to create powerful
electronic devices that take up very little physical
space. Philippe Starck, one of the few rock-star-caliber
industrial designers of the '90s, was quoted in a popular
design magazine as predicting a dematerialized future. He
said, "If people ask for 'warm' you give them warmth but
no heater. If they want sound, then sound without
loudspeakers. If they want a toothbrush, the idea is to
make teeth clean without cleaning them."

Much as I respect Monsieur Starck's work, his vision here
leaves much to be desired. For warmth, the designer may
strive to produce the desired sensation without a
traditional heater, but the ability to control the heat
is still the essential material concern. This object --
heater, controller, thermostat, call it what you will --
offers an important emotional link to the environment.
When we come home on a cold, dark evening we find solace
in our ability to flip a switch to create light, punch a
few buttons on a phone to talk to someone, or simply turn
on a TV to escape for a while.

The phenomenon of shrinking electronic appliances cannot
be ignored, however, and innovations like flat screens,
thin speakers, and downloadable media allow our
components to almost disappear into the walls. Many of
the ornate mechanisms that went into simple traditional
operations like rewinding an audiotape or ejecting a
video (etown.com's Ron Goldberg likes to reminisce about
his auto-reverse audiocassette deck) can potentially be
replaced by a tiny chip. But losing such mechanical
functions has the unfortunate drawback of making products
even more enigmatic than they already are, with no visual
cues to tell you what's going on inside that black box.
When the object as we know it no longer exists, we become
more dependent on the interface to take on characteristic
material qualities that let us interact.

Whether it's the remote control, mouse and keyboard, or
onscreen menu, the interface is the only part of the
system that we actually handle on a regular basis, and
therefore it's the place where good design becomes most
critical. In addition to the physical interface, the
onscreen menu is becoming a more important part of many
appliances. Take DVD, for example: just getting to the
"play the movie" function sometimes requires choosing an
onscreen option. Some secondary or occasional functions
such as changing the clock on a VCR or adjusting the
color balance on a display screen are best served through
an onscreen menu: the ability to control them is
essential, yet they don't necessarily need to take up the
valuable real estate of an actual button on the remote.

While we're starting to see a lot of innovation in the
area of interface design, there's still much to be
desired. Onscreen menus, while valuable, are usually
cryptic and flat (each option looks like the next). Many
remote controls are still calculator-like in layout and
don't communicate a hierarchy of functions. The
opportunity for designers lies in focusing on presenting
functions intuitively (through tactile clues like color,
shape, size, and texture), letting natural human gestures
inform the actions needed to push buttons and turn dials,
and creating logical links between the 2D world of the
onscreen menu and the 3D world of the physical handheld
device.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

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