We Need an Interface-Lift

Popular wisdom has it that this is the Year of Wireless.

Popular wisdom has it that this is the Year of Wireless. But that may be wishful thinking when it comes to consumer devices, because most cell phones, handheld computers and Internet appliances are reaching a stage of complexity that makes them all but impossible to use. For example, I find myself too often staring at my Web-linked cell phone in frustration, asking, "What could they have been thinking?"

"They" are all the engineers who design things only they can use, which is why millions of VCRs will blink 12 oclock for years to come.

So Im going to play the contrarian here and declare 2001 the Year of the Interface Architect. Yes, its an ugly bugger of a name, but were facing a really ugly problem here. Granted, were beginning to see some ambitious solutions. The Palm interface was a masterpiece of innovation, in some ways as revolutionary as the 1984 Macintosh. Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia are all working on next-generation cell phone designs that look promising from an industrial design standpoint. And Handsprings VisorPhone, which bolts a cellular phone to the Visor handheld, is as intuitive as it is clunky looking.

But industrial design — the size, shape and layout of the hardware — is only part of the issue. Last year, for example, I used both the Nokia 6162 and Ericsson R280LX cell phones extensively. Both have perfectly usable keypads and legible screens, but they suffer from very different deficiencies in interface design — that is, in the software and firmware that determine how they work.

The Nokia hits closer to the mark, if only because finding a number in its phone directory is easy, even while driving a car. But its just a cell phone. The Ericsson wants to be a Web device as well, and while its a technically advanced product, its interface is inefficient.

Now, were told to anticipate all-in-one devices that combine wireless phones with handheld computers, Web appliances and maybe even global positioning systems based on the GPS satellite constellation. I dont doubt these much ballyhooed "third-generation," or 3G, devices are coming soon. Were a clever species with an enormous appetite for technology. But I do worry theyll be models of inefficiency that will take weeks, and maybe even training courses, to learn how to use.

Weve come to simply accept these inefficiencies in the operating systems and application software we use on our PCs. For example, I find it amazing that Microsofts Outlook enables you to use Word as your e-mail editor, but doesnt let you save e-mail as a Word document. Duh!

Fortunately, Microsoft appears to be taking interface critics more seriously these days. After Alan Cooper excoriated interface defects in his book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, Microsoft brought him in as a design consultant on its new MSN Browser — which is the most intuitive Windows interface since Solitaire. Cooper also designed the original programming interface for Microsoft Visual Basic, which became the foundation for many of todays programming interfaces.

Whats more, the industry seems to finally be paying serious attention to interface design theorists such as Cooper and Jakob Nielsen, author of Designing Web Usability. A recent Google search turned up scores of people with the title Interface Architect.

They have their work cut out for them. Last week, I began playing with a Magellan Map 330X GPS device, an amazing piece of technology that nevertheless suffers a number of interface flaws. For example, it displays your current location on detailed street maps with remarkable accuracy, but when you ask it to plot a route from one point to another, it draws a line "as the crow flies."

This might be fine for hikers or someone on horseback. But detailed street maps are for drivers trying to navigate a course through metropolitan traffic. Once again, I was left scratching my head in midtown Manhattan, wondering aloud, "What could they have been thinking?"