Interfaces and interactions

An interface is the point at which two things meet and interact. It provides a bridge between the user and an experience. The term derives from phrases such as ‘Human Computer Interface’ and ‘Graphical User Interface’. Bob Cotton describes the act of interfacing as ‘being able to control machines by communicating with them, and receiving feedback from them’. We encounter screen-based interfaces when we use information kiosks, DVDs or purchase tickets from a machine. We interface with cookers, washing machines, videos, HI-FI systems and our cars. David Fisher of product design company Seymour Powell admitted at the D&AD Xchange 2009 that he had to get an expert in to explain how to operate his latest Hi-Fi system. Most of us would expect to be able to use products without sitting an exam or reading a manual. Non-technological experiences can also involve interactions with an interface. A book is an interface between the user and the ideas it contains. Interfaces allow the user to interpret information they are confronted with. We are familiar with operating machines through buttons, sliders and switches; we follow directional signs and stop when we see a red light. These ‘hard’ devices provide the conceptual models or metaphors for ‘soft’ computer interfaces. Virtual onscreen handsets visually replicate physical handsets.

Mapping and interfaces
Switches, knobs and buttons on interfaces provide designers with a particular conundrum. Minimalism and uniformity seem to drive design aesthetics. To make operating devices unobtrusive the design approach is normally to minimise their size; make them of uniform appearance; and organise them in rows. This results in switches that look the same in close proximity to each other but having separate functions. The latitude for error is therefore increased. The hotplates on a cooker’s hob are operated by separate controls. If the hotplates are top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right, it makes sense to repeat this visual pattern with the controls. Often they don’t and a poor interaction experience results. It is common to observe people switching on and off banks of switches hoping that eventually, like cracking a safe, they will get the right combination. The illustration below is of my cooker’s hob. I always turn the top knob on expecting the top left hotplate to come on, as you can see it actually operates the top right. From this can you work out the relationship of the controls to the plates they control? Which one turns on which plate?
cooker hob

Desktop organisation
Most people tend to structure their lives with everything carefully positioned to facilitate memory. Whilst working at Xerox in 1983, Thomas Malone wrote an influential report entitled ‘How do people organise their desks: implications for designing office automation systems’. His studies of the importance of physical organisation are often cited as influential to the development of the desktop metaphor of computing interface systems. Malone wrote: ‘Many people organise their lives in the world, creating a pile here, a pile there, each indicating some activity to be done, some event in progress. Probably everyone uses such a strategy to some extent. Look around you at the variety of ways people structure their rooms and desks. Many styles of organisation are possible, but the physical arrangement and visibility of the items frequently convey information about relative importance. Want to do your friends a nasty turn? Do them a favour – clean up their desks or rooms. Do this to some people and you can completely destroy their ability to function’.

The Apple Macintosh computer uses a desktop metaphor as its interface. It provides the familiar concept of a desk on which documents and files can be organised into folders or printed out. Recognisable icons connect functions to actions; placing a file in the trash and emptying the bin will dispose of your file.

Anatomy of an interface
The design of a computer interface will determine its appearance and functionality. An interface comprises of: windows, icons, menus, tools, navigation devices, buttons, sliders, check boxes, dialogue boxes, alerting messages, help documentation, scrolling mechanisms, click-able items, rulers, palettes, key commands, and feedback devices. The pointer or cursor will often change shape to indicate specific functions. Care needs to be taken with the amount of onscreen graphics. Information design expert, Edward Tufte advises us to reduce the amount of screen admin debris and clutter as they provide barricades to communication.

The tools
The tools required for interaction with a computer are: a screen, keyboard, mouse or track pad. There are rules of engagement such as touch screen interaction, voice commands, typing and clicking. Windows 7 is likely to come with touch screen capabilities, however developers may be assuming that everyone has the capability to use human finger touch screens. Many groups are calling for greater voice activation tools.

Understanding interfaces
Usability and comprehension of an interface will be determined by: the terminology used; how functions are accessed and actioned; and the relationship between the various levels of operation. The surface appearance of the interface for many users is key to being able to operate within the system. Interfaces are expected to be user-friendly and understandable not only within and throughout a particular software programme but also as a standard across different programmes.

An interface introduces and provides an overview of the contents of the information that will be encountered. It also provides the means by which information can be navigated. An interface should facilitate an engagement with the content so that the user can interact with the information and gain knowledge. Information design provides the service by which the user is given access and connected to their desired information. People such as Ben Shneiderman working at the University of Maryland have been creating data visualisations dealing with the presentation of complex data through accessible interfaces. Smart Money’s Map of the Market and Film Finder are two examples.
Picture 1


Onscreen typography
The function of onscreen typography is to provide a connection with deeper levels of information and experience. It is not primarily concerned with mimicking a print-related aesthetic where the nuances of typographic style may not be of the highest priority to the reader. Hamish Muir has suggested that much of what is designed for the digital experience is not much more than print behind glass. This questions the notion of real-world metaphors and whether we should be designing a new visual language for screen interactions. Oliver Reichenstein suggests that we ‘treat text as the user interface’.

Information management
The design of interfaces requires an understanding of information management and human perception. The information designer organises information and provides the navigational tools by which to view information in the desired sequence a user requires.

Access to information
Access to clear, accurate and comprehensible information is central to most users requirements. Interfaces that allow rapid navigation to information pertinent to a user’s request place those sites at an advantage. Interfaces such as those designed for Google, Amazon, Adobe or E-bay have proven popular with users. Conversely, as John Heskett states in ‘Toothpicks and logos’, ‘…virtuoso visual effects are useless if the ability of users to take action is not taken into account’.

Further reading
Designing Interactions, Bill Moggridge
Interface, Gui Bonsiepe

Experience Design, Nathan Shedroff
The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
What is Interaction? Hugh Dubberly, Paul Pangaro and Usman Haque