Building The Future of Freelance Software / slashdev.io
From Pixels to Reality: The Transformative Evolution of User Interface Design/
Computers have become an integral part of our lives, with user interface (UI) design playing a crucial role in exploring human interaction with technology, objects, and the environment. The evolution of UI design can be traced back to four periods: the age of tools, the age of the machine, the age of software, and the age of the self. As UI design evolves, exploring human interaction has become increasingly important.
Early humans communicated using primitive tools, drawing representations of animals and nature on stone surfaces. Hieroglyphs were one of the first methods used to communicate symbolically, which later developed into art, writing, documentation, and storytelling. Over time, tools became more sophisticated, resulting in the use of simple symbols and iconography, such as emojis, to communicate emotions and subtleties beyond words.
During the industrial revolution, productivity was emphasized, and objects were mass-produced to make our lives easier. It was a time when hardware was still the main user interface. For example, the invention of the typewriter in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes allowed people to tap physical keys to create words, replacing the pen and resulting in a consistent and practical format.
Software required a user interface, and UI designers turned to people’s behavior and earlier hardware designs for inspiration. People already had a mental model of a typewriter’s keyboard, so they began interacting with text on digital screens in the same way. Skeuomorphism, which made UI elements on a two-dimensional screen appears similar to the three-dimensional world, was introduced to help users understand how to interact with the user interface.
The concept of skeuomorphism evolved into a flatter style, marked by the release of iOS7 in 2013, where minimalist interfaces became popular. Apple and Google, two leading tech companies, focused on designing UI elements that played a supporting role and were aligned with people’s mental models. Google’s Material Design aimed to give the entire digital canvas depth with subtle layers and drop shadows, as opposed to individual UI elements, as represented in skeuomorphism.
UI design’s evolution has been influenced by analogies, intuition, and best practices for lowering barriers to adoption and maintaining a connection to the ambient world. The future of UI design is in the age of the self, where designers aim to create interfaces that align with individual needs and preferences.
Humans have an innate tendency to explore everything with their fingers. The rise of the touch-screen smartphone has made the use of gestures intuitive, and people have become familiar with a range of gestures, such as pinch, tap, and long tap. Babies have even tried to interact with elements on TV screens by tapping on them. Touch-based user interfaces are intuitive and easy to use because people already know what to do when they see them.
The evolution of touch-based UIs can be divided into four stages. The first stage was the age of tools, where early humans used primitive tools to communicate by drawing representations of animals and nature on stone surfaces. The second stage was the age of machines, where the hardware itself was still the main “user interface.” The third stage was the age of software, where designers turned to people’s behavior and earlier hardware designs for inspiration. The fourth stage is the age of the self, where interfaces are becoming more personalized and adapting to users’ individual needs.
While touch-based UIs have many benefits, they also come with their own set of challenges. Designers sometimes created obscure gestures that made it difficult to find and use available interactions in a mobile UI. The user experience suffered because designers started hiding gestural interactions for aesthetic reasons. The ubiquity of the hamburger menu is one example of this, as it has low discoverability and is considered hidden navigation. The overuse of hidden gestural interactions and extensive onboarding sequences have made mobile UIs more challenging to use.
Wearable devices with small screens have made interactions difficult. Using hardware-centric features such as Apple’s Digital Crown can become time-consuming and fiddly, and some smart devices do not fit seamlessly into the home. However, Force Touch technology has been deployed on many devices, offering a more tactile and functional user interface.
The evolution of UI design has come full circle, as new technology now mimics ancient approaches. The Apple Pencil, a hardware and software technology, allows users to draw and write in the digital realm. While it is now mainstream, it wasn’t long ago that Steve Jobs famously questioned the use of a stylus on a small mobile device screen, before introducing the iPhone’s multi-touch technology in 2007.
Jobs had a valid point about the usability and difficulty of using a small stylus on a small screen. Early Windows Mobile devices came with a stylus, and the primary touch input technology was resistive touchscreens which often required a stylus for input. These tools were not suited for the time, as it felt unnatural to use a pen-like device to operate a mobile UI.
As portable screens grew larger, designers realized the potential for a separate gadget for input (drawing and handwriting) that felt like a pen. The Apple Pencil debuted on the oversized iPad Pro instead of smaller models, as it was human-centric and employed two familiar things: a pencil and a tablet. There was no need to learn anything new to use it, as our brains have been familiar with this form of writing since our ancestors pressed the blunt end of a reed stylus into wet clay tablets around 3,000 B.C.E.
Designers must take a more human-centric approach and design products that facilitate innate behaviors instead of forcing people to learn new skills.
Small screens prompted designers to explore other ways of interacting with technology. New use cases in different contexts inspired them to think of different ways people could use technology. Voice user interfaces (VUIs) are one such innovation that is improving all kinds of user experiences. Some predict that voice will power 50% of all searches by 2020.
Voice can be passive or interactive and is a powerful way to interact with technology, particularly as it is hands-free.
The world of UIs is now expanding beyond screens, as the technology we use today is disappearing into our surroundings. Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP Lab) developed Project Soli, a new sensing technology that uses miniature radar for motion tracking the human hand. This technology enables touchless gesture interactions that feel physical and responsive because feedback is generated by the haptic sensation of fingers touching each other.
IoT (Internet of Things) and AI with voice assistance are already here. It is the dawning of the age of “ambient intelligence” where a multitude of devices works in concert to support people in carrying out their everyday life activities. As a result, screen-based UIs are slowly disappearing.
The rise of “ambient intelligence” presents new challenges and opportunities for designers. Instead of designing UIs, designers must focus on designing experiences that cater to the AI-enabled world. It is more important than ever to consider the context in which users interact with technology and design products that facilitate innate behaviors.
In conclusion, the evolution of UI design has come full circle, from the age of tools to the age of machines, the age of software, and the age of the self. Touch-based UIs have become a standard, but their limitations on smaller screens have encouraged designers to explore other ways of interacting with technology, such as voice user interfaces and touchless gestures. With the emergence of IoT and AI with voice assistance, screens are disappearing into our surroundings, and the age of “ambient intelligence” is upon us. In this new world, designers must focus on designing experiences that facilitate innate behaviors, rather than designing UIs that force people to learn new skills. It is a fascinating era of design and evolving user interfaces, where our entire environment becomes a user interface, and the future evolution of UI design will undoubtedly have exciting implications for the way we interact with technology.