What will our (future) interfaces feel like?

The visual language of our interfaces has gone through a lot of changes over the past decade. Remember what the Web 2.0 interfaces felt like? Giant type, ginormous forms, and buttons that would make Fitt’s Law insignificant. God forbid you went off task or didn’t know exactly what to do next. Icons lined our digital streets (and still do in some parts). Need to cancel something? A big red circle with an “x” is here so you can be sure what it means.

These days it’s about the content. Design starts with the content. Language is the navigation. The interface is words. We’re advised to choose them carefully. Copywriting is now where the interface lives or perishes. We can’t trust those devious icons or that friendly, yet somewhat unclear language from the Web 2.0 days — we need to be clear and say exactly what we mean. The three most important things here are: Clarity, clarity, clarity.

“Nothing says Send Message, like the words “Send Message”. You can play with envelopes and arrows all you want. That’s not to say that icon-only interfaces are bad. They exchange initial clarity for long term beauty. It’s a choice you sometimes have to make.” — Des Traynor

With touchscreen, a lot of these rules change. The new applications I’ve seen hint at another (potential) stage of how our interfaces might act. One that stands out is Clear. It’s a to-do list app designed by Impending and Milen, with Realmac Software. Now, it’s not available yet, so I can only go by what I saw in the video — it’s all assumptions from this point on. It looks like much of the interface is gestures without labels or icons, lacking any sort of visual affordance. There could be an onboarding for it to help you understand what you can do, but we’ll have to see.

Clear

What I find interesting about this interface is that it breaks a lot of our current rules for interfaces. This is the type of interface that I imagine a usability expert would have nightmares about. But it looks fun as heck to use. There is an element of play (no, not “gamification”) going on here. Now, in the context of this application, it looks like this will work very well. The limited job this application does for you allows for the lack of language and icons to guide you. According to the designers, it appears their intention was to question many of the current rules of interface design:

“I think the important thing is to never take anything for granted and question everything — all the known interface design conventions, the clichés and rules of the genre. These are formulas, and to us formulas are just a fancy way of describing the rut you’re stuck in.” — Phill Ryu, in a Venture Beat interview.

The biggest problem with gestures is that they look fun to use, but aren’t always that great. Swinging your arms around like Tom Cruise in the future looks pretty damn cool, until gorilla arm sets in after doing that for an hour. The usability expert might point out that most users today wouldn’t know what the gestures are to navigate without being instructed. And Jakob Nielsen would be somewhat right.

But, I don’t think that’s who this is designed for… or, should I say, when this is designed for. This app feels like an app for the future. One where a toddler today, that has used an iPad her entire life, will be comfortable with it in the future. If some time traveling designer from Web 2.0 created the Clear app, the interface would likely feel very awkward and confining to this next generation of users.

I think it’s interesting to watch interfaces evolve. Especially moving from what we Web nerds call skeuomorphic interfaces. I don’t think our future is trying to manipulate “a picture under glass” of some physical looking thingy.

I understand that the gesture-based navigation for the Clear app is still a finger, swiping at things under glass. However, the playfulness and animated elements unraveling are very intriguing to me. It reveals something interesting happening with our interfaces. We’re just beginning to figure a lot of things out. As Wilson Miner so eloquently puts it in his Build talk:

“We’re not just making pretty interfaces. We’re actually in the process of making an environment where we’ll spend most of our time, for the rest of our lives. We’re the designers. We’re the builders. What do we want that environment to feel like? What do we want to feel like?” — Wilson Miner