Recently I was listening to a friend grouse about a crappy co-worker who had just washed up in his department. As the litany of complaints grew longer and longer, her co-worker began to sound more and more like a really crappy smartphone. Bear with me for a second, while I list some of those complaints, because when you get through them, they each reveal something telling about what we demand of a good user interface—and how we should look at the products we create.
Each of these regrettable traits has a precise parallel with a crappy UI. Numbers 1 and 2 have to do with establishing a two-way dialogue and handling information in a relevant, clear way—figuring out what’s worth bringing to a user’s attention, and what’s not. Number 3 is about UI’s that bother you with trivialities, while never quite being clear about their function. Number 4 is about the process of developing a UI: What do you fix, when things need fixing?
Number 5 is the most complex, and it has to do with addressing the broader context of what a UI is supposed to do. Imagine a smartphone app about adopting a cat, for example. A crappy app would give you a picture and maybe some sort of information so generic and out of date that it was useless—or worse, irrelevant. A good app would rethink the very process of adopting a cat. It would re-engineer the various touch points with a shelter and eliminate all of the hassles along the way.
The point of all this is that when we say we want things to be "human," we can actually learn a lot by flipping the thing around. What do we actually expect out of people? Maybe the best example of this way of thinking comes (of course) from Steve Jobs, who famously insisted that the early Macintosh’s OS be "friendly." Jobs was a fiend about that: The rounded corners, smiling Mac icon, and cheery fonts were all in service of a very human ideal.
When people say that outstanding UI’s have a "soul," it’s precisely because they’ve been created with human traits, such as friendliness, in mind. By contrast, UI’s that focus purely on usefulness will always leave you cold, just like a person that’s merely "useful" or "efficient" would be a bore. You talk about someone fun or chatty or stylish—then you’re talking about legitimate personality traits. And you can actually imagine them translating into the pixels of a smartphone.
If you asked me to boil down the design instinct into one single trait, I’d probably say that it’s the constant search for metaphors that might enlighten us about the way things could be. (Could a screen have "pages" that turn like those in a book? Could a computer screen behave like your desktop?) But the most powerful metaphors we have involve our relationships with friends and family—and co-workers.
[All images: Everett Collection/Shutterstock]