Back in the old days, people needed to come up with ways how to communicate with computers in order to use their magnificent power and make the most of it to serve user needs. The way the interfaces worked was dictated by limitations of the computers’ capacity to behave like humans. Therefore, we needed to adjust our behaviour to line up with technology. And so, we learned to bend our natural style of communication and type in lines of commands easily recognized by machines but not so easy to memorise for a human being.
How we made friends with machines
Nowadays, when technology has become more and more advanced, the roles have shifted and it is us, humans, who can define how to communicate best with machines. We are no longer forced to stick to the good old keyboard/mouse - screen display interface. We have come up with faster ways to convey our needs to the devices and begun to diversify the types of interfaces depending on the circumstances, environment, and the characteristics of the target users. We have introduced touch interfaces and thus made technology more accessible and user friendly to many people.
The perfect interface
There are still many situations where a touch interface is not very convenient or even impossible to use. You do not need to look very far - imagine all the moments everyday when your hands are simply occupied - wet, dirty, covered in dough, holding a steering wheel, gloved to protect you from the freezing wind, holding a child, and so on. There are also specific contexts, like gaming and entertainment, where diversifying the ways to interact with the product is simply fun and enhances the experience. Not to mention a number of people with disabilities which exclude them from using touch interface.
The power of voice
Over the past few years, voice interfaces have gained a lot of hype. Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri have become familiar to us as they aid us in various tasks throughout the day. And, more importantly, talking to a device requires less effort and is much more natural than interacting via a touchscreen. As human beings, we are wired to constantly communicate by conversing. However, conversations are radically different than the standard way we have been dealing with these devices so far. Designing a good voice assistant is thus not an easy task to execute. Some of the very important aspects to include in a good voice-user interface are:
Using natural language - built with everyday language sentences as if it really was a casual conversation between two individuals;
Taking care of precision and feedback - as memory and perception work differently in the spoken world and require frequent summarizing and paraphrasing in order to perform well;
Preparing a good strategy for error situations - there is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat yourself several times in a row.
With voice interfaces equipped with speech recognition, we can count on assistants to perform actions based on the understanding of our phrases and doing the chores for us - like finding us information, ordering food or tickets to the theatre, and making sure our calendars are up to date. What they might struggle with though is understanding a wide variety of accents and dealing with noise in our surroundings. They might also not be the perfect fit for the moments when we need our privacy and simply do not want others to be witnesses to our digital interactions.
When silence is golden
Perhaps less widespread, but definitely popular in the gaming world, are remote gesture controllers. The idea with gesture control would be to use a device which enables connecting the interface, e.g. to a band which is worn on the user’s arm, and, thanks to muscle movement detection, enables controlling the interface. The technical implementation can be arbitrary - it can be a detector reading the position of your body performing gestures, not necessarily connected to your body, but using cameras to determine your whereabouts. Gesture control is also aimed at using the natural way we behave, how we move, to influence our surroundings. It mirrors the results we achieve in the real world and transfers them into the virtual world, making it so much easier to seamlessly immerse ourselves in the game and thus make the experience very tangible.
Going further on the scale of alternative, we have the brainwave interface. It might require a device in the form of a headband which catches and recognizes the type of brainwave activity of the user (but it could also extend to brain implants in the future). The brainwave interface enables controlling the connected device (e.g. an iPad) interface by focusing attention on the controls on the screen and blinking to perform actions.
A similar technique can be used when it comes to an eye-tracker controlled interface. Interacting with the elements on the screen is done by focusing the gaze on certain parts or spots on the screen. The eye-tracker needs to be calibrated to the user’s eyes and usually works within a distance up to 1 m. Although it might seem like overkill for everyday situations, these types of interfaces can make a tremendous difference for people with disabilities or serious illnesses resulting in paralysis or inability to speak by giving them a chance to communicate and improve the quality of life.
It may be more difficult to shift to alternative types of interfaces in a broader context because of the power of habit, the persistent common frame of mind defining what we can and cannot do when interacting with machines, and more down-to-earth reasons, like the inability to afford state-of-the-art devices. It may also be easier for designers to choose a touch interface solution because it has been done a thousand times and does not require a rocket science approach, but it is highly advisable to stop for a while and really think through the context of use, the specifics of the user the product is intended for, and the incomparable benefits that the alternatives may bring. It does require exceptional imagination to gain extraordinary adoption of alternative interfaces, but technology today brings virtually unlimited possibilities in front of us and that is what makes this uncharted territory worth exploring.