A user interface (UI) is the set of means by which we interact with a system. I have probably mentioned in the past that I view almost everything as some type of a system or a component within a system. These systems all have UIs. In many cases, the UI is all we get to see from outside. The best systems have exceptional foundations and inner-workings in addition to their simple, clear, and easy-to-learn user interfaces. Let me give you a couple examples.
Every house has a UI. A coat closet in the wrong place, a door swinging the wrong way, or a light switch across the room all contribute to minor annoyances we typically get used to in an older home. Inside the house system, key components of the UI of the plumbing sub-system are faucets and sinks. Does the refrigerator have a user interface? Of course!
Take the system of government. Does that have a UI? Certainly! Move from one state or country to another and you may feel as helpless in dealing with basic tasks as in moving from one computer operating system to another. The frustration grows when the new UI is worse (less intuitive, with more flaws, lacking in features, etc.) than the prior one (even if the inner structures are better). Our frustration also increases when an interface to which we are accustomed changes for the worse over time.
Our impressions of the experience of interaction are hinged upon the interface presented. A beautiful and delicious meal at a nice restaurant with outstanding service creates an impression of an organized and efficient kitchen. Is this always the case or is it an illusion created by the restaurateur?
Here are some questions I cannot seem to be able to answer:
- What allows one group of people to create a system superior to those created by other similar groups? Why is Apple able to create a computer that’s perceived to be easier to use than that created by Dell/Microsoft? Why are the founding fathers of America able to create a system far superior to that created by Lenin and his friends? Why is one town in Massachusetts able to govern itself better than another?
- When we perceive the system to be superior to an alternative, do we really know everything about its internal structures, or are we just impressed by the user interface? Does the internal structure and foundation really matter? Example of this is “slapping a coat of paint before putting the house on the market.”
- Is the user interface at all indicative of the underlying structural excellence? Can a system last the test of time if most effort (and investment) is toward the interface?
- Why are some people able to create nice interfaces (such as beautiful web sites) while others cannot even maintain a system that’s given to them? Some people and groups seem to exist to run innovations into the ground.
- Have we come too far? In contrast to our simpler beginnings when we had fewer systems and user interfaces (and fewer points of failure), have we created a monster by creating interdependent systems with complex interfaces in every corner of our life?
I suspect the answers depend on the perspective but it is clear to me that we are riding an interesting long-term wave of systems and interfaces. The transformation is faster than ever and the results more spectacular than ever yet basic humanitarian questions are far from finding their answers. Maybe the interface is getting more attention than it deserves in some departments of our life and not enough in others.