FLUD

Some of the best UIs we came across in 2010 tackle a glaring problem on the web: There’s way too much information swarming around, making it difficult to get at the stuff you actually want to read. FLUD, an iOS app, offers an elegant solution. It lets you organize all your newsfeeds into a single easy-to-use, tile-based interface that also has social networking functions built in.

Cortex

Similarly, Cortex helps organize social networks. A free extension for Google Chrome, it’s nothing more than a ring that appears onscreen when you click and hold your mouse on something you want to share via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instapaper. That simplicity is its brilliance. Normally, you have to spend a few seconds trying to find a website’s social media buttons (which no two sites ever put in the same place). But with Cortex, the post is instant.

IOBR

IOBR has our favorite pint-sized UI of the year. It’s a toy for toddlers that works a lot like Twitter. Here’s how: Kids take little blocks that feature icons for various kiddie doings -- sleeping, eating, and brushing their teeth -- then insert them into slots in a box to show what they’re up to. That creates a status update, which lights up the corresponding block on an IOBR box at a friend’s house. A shtick? Maybe. But the designers, Passi & Ripatti, insist the toy is about more than just creating cute mini Twitter junkies: It can be a game that uses status updates to help motivate children to finish their activities faster, as in: “Let’s see if you are in bed before your friend.”

Multi Touch Light Table

The Multi Touch Light Table, by designer Gerg Kaufman, lets DJs consolidate all their gear into a single flash-drive. Pop it into a laptop, and a slick touchscreen interface appears that functions like both a pair of turntables and digital mixers.

Gesture Remote

TV remote controls have some of the worst UIs around, what with their gajillion buttons, only a handful of which actually seem to do anything. Gesture Remote to the rescue! Thanks to sensor-based technology, this clever remote lets you channel surf, adjust volume, and even play around on social networking sites just by moving your fingers over its smooth, button-free surface. “[C]ontrol devices,” the company says dramatically, “with just a wave of your hand.” Which is precisely what we’ll want to do when TV starts looking more like the internet, with screens that lead to on-demand content, YouTube, Facebook, and so on. A remote that simplifies, instead of adds to the confusion, will be crucial. By Lunar Europe, Ident Technology AG, and zinosign

MetaMirror

MetaMirror, a concept app by the Irish design firm Notion, would turn television into a full-blown interactive experience. Run on an iPad or another secondary device, it would supplement standard programming with online content, like grocery shopping lists, if you’re watching a cooking show; real-time statistics and merch, if you’re watching a football game; and links to Ticketmaster and iTunes, if you’re watching a music video. Basically, it would make TV better at doing what it’s designed to do: sell stuff. How has this not gotten snapped up by some voracious TV exec?

Speed Dial

Even something as basic as a padlock can improve dramatically with a new interface. Case in point: Speed Dial, a lock in which Master Lock replaced standard number combinations with a sequence of up-down and left-right movements. The logic here is that directional movement is more intuitive than numbers or alpha-numeric code. It’s also easier for folks who are elderly or have disabilities. If you’re visually impaired, you don’t need to be able to see Speed Dial to crack it open. Likewise, if you’ve got limited dexterity, you can still work the lock, since a directional code requires less precision than a number combo.

Seabird

This concept device by Billy May (with crowd-sourced input through Mozilla Labs) would solve one of the biggest problems with smartphones: Displays are way too small for users to input data efficiently. May’s proposal is to project the interface right off the phone, using a pair of pico projectors. Add a docking station, and you’d be able to throw a virtual keyboard on a table and your phone’s screen on a wall -- in effect, giving your cellie the same capabilities as a laptop.

John’s Phone

John Doe Amsterdam, the designers of John’s Phone, take the opposite, less-is-more approach to phones. To that end, their cell device -- which they bill as “the world’s simplest” -- does just two things: It takes and receives calls anywhere around the globe. Nothing else. The idea here is to do away with all the useless special features that make cell technology wasteful and inaccessible to many users. Appropriately, the interface is stripped down to its most basic parts -- an oversized number pad and graphic call and hangup keys that even a toddler could figure out.

Ref

Ref wins the award for the weirdest UI we’ve seen all year. It’s a prototype for a robotic armcuff that acts like a wearable shrink, twisting, curling, and nuzzling against your skin in response to changes in your pulse. The movements are designed to make you aware of your emotions and, ultimately, to soothe -- which is a pretty fascinating application of haptic tech to cognitive behavioral psychology. We’re just not sure Ref’s monstrous looks won’t counteract its therapeutic value. Designed by Jens Dyvik

IDEO ATM

IDEO’s touchscreen-based ATMs for the Spanish bank group BBVA are like iPhones for the banking industry; they’re designed to be both highly personalized and dead simple. Instead of separate slots for receipts, cash, checks, and so on, you’ve got two: one for your ATM card and one for everything else. The touchscreens, meanwhile, only feature info about the task at hand, preventing any confusion you might feel in a sea of superfluous buttons. The screens also let you add personal information to your transactions -- say you want to specify who a check’s from. A keyboard pops up and you type it in. But the real showstopper here is something so basic it seems pretty absurd no one thought of it before: IDEO rotated the ATM 90 degrees, forcing people to queue up next to the machine (where they’re in the user’s sight line) rather than behind it.

Web Design

Earlier this year, we sounded off about the mistaken notion that “undesigned” is the next great web trend, when in truth, people were just confusing non-design with good design. So our vote for the best UI of the year is -- at the risk of sounding a little fuzzy here -- web design that actually works. That includes Instapaper and Flipboard, and all the other websites and apps that manage to improve our enjoyment of content, even if, and, more precisely, because, they don’t beat you over the head with their "design."

Co.Design

12 of the Year's Best Ideas in Interface Design [Slideshow]

This past year, we brought you stories on everything from tweeting toddler toys and streamlined ATMs to news-reading apps and remote controls that magically change channels with a wave of the hand. Though wildly different from one another, these projects share a common denominator: They all display intriguing user-interface innovations.

User interfaces, when done well, are the unsung hero of product design. They're the difference between a printer whose buttons you can figure out without even reading the instructions and one you want to throw across the room. Now, with the rise of personal computing, interfaces are more relevant than ever before, providing the crucial link between physical objects and the virtual world. Above, we've collected some of the year's cleverest, clearest, and most creative UIs. Enjoy!

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12 Comments

  • Confused

    i really dont get this website. where is the slideshow? where is the content? :-/

  • Prerak Patel

    How does the slideshow work? I have constantly tried and can't seem to figure out. A nod in the right direction would be appreciated. Thanks

  • Aaron Blanding

    Great article, no one can stress the importance of a good interface design enough. The ability to capture a users experience and provide a fresh outlook every time is something that can not go unnoticed. It is key to customer satisfaction, because it makes even the dreariest of users feel savvy.

  • Neil

    A fascinating insight into the warped minds of modern so-called designers who consider that form is more important than function. Even the webpage it is displayed on in confusing and poorly designed!

  • Tara

    These are all amazing ideas...I actually downloaded Cortex immediately after reading it. My next fav is the IDEO ATM just for the safety. And I'm also intrigued by Ref...how would people react to someone with a cuddly octopus on their arm? XD

  • Fernan2rod

    Interesting UX solutions. I wonder how attractive and sophisticated going to be the interface and navigation systems of the major social networks in the future, without the today technology limitations.

  • Cynthia

    "User interfaces, when done well, are the unsung hero of product design. They’re the difference between a printer whose buttons you can figure out without even reading the instructions and one you want to throw across the room. Now, with the rise of personal computing, interfaces are more relevant than ever before, providing the crucial link between physical objects and the virtual world."