About a month ago we made an appearance on the UI/UX panel at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh, where I shared some of the challenges we’ve faced and the lessons we have learnt in audio-led interaction. It was also the first public demo of the things that have been keeping us busy over the past year (skip down to the end of the post for a video demo if you’d like). The Festival was an interesting two days with many great conversations and presentations on technology, startups and design.
We are passionate about audio driven interaction and non-linear storytelling through a medium that is contextual and personal. Interaction, non-linear, contextual and personal. Buzz. Each word opens up a can of worms.
Designing a natural user experience isn’t easy. Moving away from touch screens and visual mediums can quickly complicate matters. Designing an interface that works universally is difficult. For us it has boiled down to constant iteration with user feedback. The technology doesn’t matter, the end product and the user does.
In my quest to find answers and solve problems through design, I’ve been digging into the past. It has been fascinating to study about early computer HUI/GUI interfaces and discover how every user interface decision can be traced to previous products and the world around us. So much about how we interact with technology is inspired by how we have interacted with the non-technological world through our bodies across human history.
A valid question to ask is: why do this? It is not just about solving problems and creating something cool. There is something magical about putting on a pair of headphones and listening to a virtual sound world that is interactive.
But, creating believable experiences takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes — heavy lifting both on the technological and design front. The aim for my talk was to share some of the design lessons we’ve learnt in a hope that it would be useful to the wider community of technologists and designers.
An interface helps a user input information to control a system (that is probably larger and more complicated than the interface itself) and in return provides the user feedback about the actions and the state of the system itself. The aim is usually to make this process as simple as possible – reducing the gaps between action, outcome and reaction as much as possible while providing information that is relevant to the context. What if you clicked a button that provides no feedback? Or ring a doorbell that makes no sound? Or even worse, roll over buttons on a website with loud animation AND sound effects AND background music!
Creating feedback is easy, designing feedback that is useful and meaningful is difficult. Research about the product, interface, market, user and the context in which it happens seems to be a good place to start, followed by lots of user testing.
Action and Outcome
An interface is used with some expectation. A user’s action must result in an outcome that matches their expectation or ideally surpass it. Under-promise, over-deliver. A mismatch between action and outcome will lead to an experience that can be frustrating and lead the user into mistrusting themselves or the product or both.
The design and underlying technology must make the process from action to outcome as simple as possible. Fewer instructions provided depending on the context can make the process simpler. Although, there is a very fine line between a simple idea and a simplistic product.
BIG and small. Size can be perceived only with a reference. Contrast can often be understood if it is exaggerated and made larger than life — especially when a user needs to be led to make certain choices. The difference in contrast is perceived differently by differently people. A sound or visual designer might pick out subtle shifts in sound or visual content, but a regular user might need to have it pointed out to them.
Metaphors and Skeuomorphism
Sure, there’s lot of distaste for the S-word, but it still is relevant. Complex and difficult ideas need to be dumbed down and made easier to understand using concepts and imagery that is well understood and natural to us as humans. We use metaphors in everything we do, doing the same with design isn’t cheating.
Familiarity and Imagination
Simple and recognisable designs can quickly become boring. The challenge and excitement is in designing a product that is familiar but simultaneously challenges the user in an exciting way. Lead the user, but give them the opportunity to take the last step. They need to feel in control without knowing the complex processes that are working behind the scenes to make all of this possible.
But, rules are meant to be broken and challenged. We learn every day with every new user, new line of code, new technology and new design resource. We are so often wrong with our assumptions that it is humbling to test a product. Iteration FTW.
For the curious, here’s a snippet of my presentation when I demoed one of our many prototypes (thanks to Abesh for recording this on his phone and apologies for the low quality, I’m told the official videos from the festival should be out soon):