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Can We Take The ‘U’ Out Of User Interface Design?

Can We Take The ‘U’ Out Of User Interface Design?
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BERG's Matt Jones shares with frogdesign his perspective on the changing relationship between user and object, and how that change that is shaping the culture of use.

Paloma M. Vazquez
  • 28 october 2011

In light of last weekend’s Pop!Tech conference, frogdesign had an opportunity to catch up with Matt Jones, a principal at BERG London, and pick his brain about how interface and product design. Specifically, how products, robotics, artificial intelligence translate into interfaces, platforms and products–and how these ultimately shape and influence human behavior and culture. While Jones shares a number of interesting points and notions he’s tracking to in the video below, we were especially provoked by a particular point he made.

Jones proposes that in an increasingly near-future where the line between products and robotics are blurred, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine who the “user” in a so-called user interface is. He cites that, with Siri, the user experience is closer to having a conversation with a companion, rather than interacting with a tool. With that context in mind, do we even need the ‘U’ in UI (User Interface) anymore? Jones believes that we need to begin thinking about UI differently — less as a tool and more as a relationship that people have with a physical object that can actually display a certain behavior.

We believe the spirit of Jones’ proposal is not so much that the user in the UI equation is irrelevant (we are always designing for people), but rather that the relationship between the U(ser) and the I(nterface) is one we need to consider differently, and perhaps with loftier expectations of what it can accomplish. We believe this notion bears implications not only for product and UI designers, but also for the strategists and marketers that are helping businesses better connect with and serve their audience.

Jones refers to ‘cultures of use’ as what every product ultimately contributes to. To elaborate, the products, tools and experiences that we create shape our culture; for instance, they shape our expectations that a screen be something we can interact with purely by touch, and not by text entry, or by flipping a page. We believe this ‘culture of use’ applies not only to technical products or electronics, but also to the packaged goods we introduce into the marketplace, the dining experiences we create, and the applications we develop to connect our business offerings and our customers. We are shaping the culture of how people use products, connect to the businesses and entities that provide them–and ultimately how we connect to each other.

As a community of designers, strategists and marketers, it benefits us to remember that we’re not only designing (or strategizing) to solve problems, but also contributing to culture by shaping the behaviors and expectations of a collective audience. We have an opportunity to not only provide improved function and resolution of friction via the use of every product, website, application or campaign we create — but to design and plan for products and experiences that provide a sense of delight and discovery to those that interact with them.

We would propose that our opportunity and responsibility is to design and plan not only for how people will use a product independently, but also for how those behaviors will shape how they interact with each other. We wonder how Siri will–over time and with increased adoption–effect the human interactions ‘she’ now mimics or facilitates.

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