Saturday, June 13, 2015

Tailoring graphical user interfaces for everyday life

When developing a graphical user interface for a product, it's easy to forget the outside world; the reality that your product will ultimately face.
It's tempting to downplay the importance of various everyday situations. Mundane, boring and even stupid situations, that have nothing to do with your amazing new product; yet everything to do with how much user attention they require. This common and critical mistake results in a struggle between the product and the environment it's being used in. Below is a simplified example of this conflict (click to enlarge).

The image shows how the environment affects our ability to focus and handle information. The more control we have over the environment we're in, the more demanding interfaces we can cope with.

Mobile and portable devices are widely adopeted because they conform to dynamic and unpredictable qualities of human life. We naturally have a lower barrier toward carrying small devices with us. Therefore a smartphone is more likely to be used inside a taxing situation than a desktop computer.

On the opposite ends of that scale, we can either be fully engaged with the environment, or with the graphical user interface. Even a familiar and simple interface will be problematic in a demanding situation. Like composing an email while outrunning a bear. Similarly, any smartwatch interface feels lethally boring and restrictive, while waiting for another meeting to end (you'd rather tussle a bear). For reference, see the following image (click to enlarge).

Our available time, at any given moment, affects what we consider important. When a situation requires any attention, completing another task will costs you situational control and awareness. The expense amount depending on both interface needs and the task complexity in question. In short, if you text and drive, you'll suck at both. Human multitasking in all its glory.

Therefore it's important for interfaces input requirements to scale accordingly. The problem is that many interfaces today, like Android, iOS and WP, are already beyond their capability to do so, forcing the user to give in. The reason is a devious one. Even if people don't like to carry around tower PCs, they still love the familiar interface logic derived from them. Even though many human interaction methods, that were developed for desktop computing, are far too demanding for the life outside those cubicles they were never meant to leave.

The smaller your product is, the more focused, effortless and fault tolerant the interface needs to be. I know that our work on Sailfish OS is not there yet either, but it's still easier to keep on building it on top of thoughts like these.

A mobile device that fits your life, is valuable. One preventing you from living yours to the fullest, is not.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.


  1. Very good article. Not all designers take these points into account (intended use and the various states / conditions the user would find themselves in while using your product