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What A Toaster Teaches You About The Future Of User Interfaces

Michael Meyer’s toaster may not have a touch-screen interface or retina display, but it’s got the right personality and set of behaviors—a lesson worth learning for all products.

The current model of good interaction design has run its course. Users have come to expect the rich, fluid, high-bitrate presentation and the direct manipulation and gestural interface control, as enabled by the latest generation of smartphones and tablets. For devices whose economics can support the internal parts cost required to deliver it, this style of interaction is simply table stakes. But while all product interactions need to be thoughtfully designed, rich screen-based interactions may not be the best direction. In fact, they are often just plain wrong.

Even when it comes to the most sophisticated forms of technology, personality, behavior, and emotions often have more of an impact on a user than screen-based interactions. Body language is tremendously compelling; we pick up on it faster and trust it more implicitly than any other language. In one of my current projects, a robot that interacts intensively with people, our team has come to understand that people’s ability to read the status and intent of the robot at a distance and on the fly is far more important than the screen-focused interactions that the technology supports.

In lower-tech products, where rich screen-based interaction is not economically viable, thoughtful design of personality and behavior can be the critical differentiator that captures both market share and a price premium.

For example, our Breville toaster is the most beloved appliance in my home. It speaks to me in a natural language. I can tell it I want to "lift and look" at the toast without losing its place in the process, and it knows how to toast "a bit more." Upon pressing "start," a row of lights fade in above the toastiness control, and they count down the time until done, so I know when to expect the toast to rise up from its slot. When it does these things, it does so calmly, almost with an air of expertise, like a person, rather than a machine. And it makes damn fine toast.

Most important, the toaster doesn’t need a graphics-processing unit and retina display to achieve this effect. The thoughtful coordination of silkscreened text, hard buttons, LEDs and geared motors, tied together with a very simple brain, gives the device a personality and set of behaviors that are actually more appropriate than a smartphone display, at a cost that does not require a data service plan to be economically viable. Certainly, it is more expensive to produce than an average toaster, but it also commands a 45% premium over competing good-looking-but-dumb-acting toasters. And it sells very well.

This approach of designing behaviors and personalities, rather than transactional screen interactions, offers an opportunity for products at both ends of the price spectrum to differentiate themselves from their competition. Like all things worth doing, it is tough. These personalities and behaviors will be different for each product, will draw upon unique modes of expression, and will require that we rethink our mainstream criteria of good interaction design. But the companies that can get it right will be the leaders in a new era of interactions and experiences.

[Image: tihis/Shutterstock]