Friday, July 31, 2015

Man and its computer, part 2

In part 1, I shared my conclusions about how similar today's computers are. They all run different applications, ranging from entertainment to productivity, from simple to complex. This post will compare in closer detail how graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of said computers help people to get the best out of their investment in these devices.

Desktop and laptop computers

When you use one for the first time, you see en empty desktop. The apps that you bought the computer for, are hidden somewhere else. A few app shortcuts might be visible by default, and the rest are tucked away below multiple steps for user to configure and manage.

Indication of an application that has been sent to background, ranges from subtle to quesswork. The desktop wallpaper, as seen in examples 1, 2 and 3, has clearly the biggest emphasis. It's however not exactly why these computers exists.

Phone and tablet computers

Upon starting one of these devices, user sees that applications are also divided between multiple locations, with iOS being the only exception here (example 1). It shows everything on a single location. Android (2) has multiple home screens, with all but few installed apps hidden in yet another place. Windows phone (3) is a mixture, while Ubuntu Phone (4) has much bigger plans than apps.

For an unknown reason, all applications that have been started, are demoted and hidden to a task switcher view. A design that looks and works like an afterthought. Windowed apps are slowly starting to appear, but still feel clunky and bolted-on solutions. The experience doesn't change when the device is connected to a larger screen. Only WP and Ubuntu phone are pursuing scenarios beyond the traditional desktop and mobile divide. Kudos for both for focusing on the future.

Console computers

The same pattern is sadly repeated. The software that user benefits from, is divided and scattered around the main user interface. The current game/app is prominently shown, but when it comes to seeing what else is installed, or running in the background for that matter, it's not what these interfaces are intended for. And consoles are usually connected to over 40" screens, so it's not that they wouldn't have space to put it in.

There's no support for multiple screens, and these computers are sometimes even more limited than mobile ones, due to shortcomings of gamepad input. Xbox OS has an edge over its competition in doing several things at the same time by allowing windowed operation of some of its core features, without breaking the context user was in.

  The verdict

Even though all computers and their operating systems are near identical in terms of what they do; companies developing them have chosen very different graphical user interfaces for them to do it. It means, that:
  • users have to memorize different interface conventions between different computers
  • multiple OS'es (or variants of them) are needed to support different devices
  • only big companies have resources to develop multiple products from different categories
  • massive overlap in required effort when developing software for multiple devices and/or operating systems

Back in the days, with just few computers around, there was no need for a common approach to GUIs. Instead, there was plenty of time, ignorance, workforce and money. As a result, we have several user interface paradigms, that all fail with various degrees. The shared mistake is focusing on building physical products with 'art directed' interfaces. A direction based on a personal perception how a particular device should be used, easily masks any digital similarities underneath the glamorous surface, abstracting important qualities all operating systems commonly share.

To sum it up..

Every 'signature charasteristics' that desktop, mobile and other interface paradigms have managed to pile up over these years, are merely distractions. They occupy minds of designers, developers and and end users alike. Our digital world is a hot mess - partly because of our obsession over the current categorization of computer GUIs and OS'es.

If something is certain, it's that software has never needed such arbitrary categorization - and neither do people using them. Future user interfaces will leverage different screen sizes and input types when they become available; instead stubbornly serving a single form factor, like they do today.

How can we help people to see beyond their lust for yesterday? How can future user interfaces better focus on increasing our human potential, if our preferences and behavior explicitly tells them otherwise?

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. Hi Jaakko !

    I am not sure I get your point: "software has never needed such arbitrary categorization".
    There is a clear categorization of these devices due to the input system. Keyboard and mouse are at least ten times faster and more precise than a tactile screen.
    So the categorization PC vs phone will be there for a long time, and the GUI(/software) will have to follow these differences to allow the user to use it at its maximum.
    No ?


    1. Hi Zeta

      I'm so sorry about the delay in my reply. My summer vacation was a bit of a technological retreat. Now as it's over, I'll be online much more frequently.

      The two most important things for interactions are: the environment where it happens, and inputs / outputs used for it. If you're walking outside, you don't use mouse and keyboard with your phone / tablet. When your're vising a library or an office with those inputs available, the OS interface design doesn't accommodate for such a possibility (i.e. use a different theme parameters to fit more content and controls on the screen due to mouse input being used.)

      Today, you have to carry a phone, tablet and a laptop if you wish to cover a wider range of use cases, just because of these categorizations.

      I'm not saying there should be only one device for everything. It might happen some day, but not yet. My point is that people could use technology around them much better without a forced categorization, that drives user interface designers into dictating how we all should use computers. I hope that somehow clarifies my post :)

      Thanks for commenting, take care..

    2. Hello Jaakko,

      Don't be sorry, you are not the only one taking vacations away from the network ;).

      Thanks, I can see what you mean.

      I am only very careful about losing this distinction, as people often propose things that are not good for either of those former categories by trying to remove them. As examples, we can see how the old windows mobile (like in WM6.5) had a UI that was a pain to use handheld, or in Windows 8 how trying to make it usable on a tablet was a big drawback for mouse/keyboard users (sorry for the windows only examples, but they are there to give examples for a longer time than others!).

      Have a nice day !


    3. Hi Zeta,

      Spot on. It's important for computers to support multiple forms of user input. Touch on the go, keyboard for a quick blog post at a coffee shop, and full desktop stuff at work.

      The UI simply has to be designed to adapt to these increases/decreases in input bandwidth. As you said, nobody wants to use touch-only design with mouse and keyboard. Same goes for trying to use a full desktop environment with fingers on a 5" screen.

      The mistake is in claiming that "this is a mobile / desktop OS", because it doesn't have to be like that anymore. There are only different environments people need to use a computer, and different inputs devices that fit them.

      Thanks for the great example, take care!