User experience is ripe for a revolution

I had a lovely chat on saturday with an eldely couple who were interested in the Kindle I was reading while eating breakfast. What struck me about the exchange was something that I have been mulling over for some months, but the conversation was sort of a culmination of an idea slowly building up over time: technology has outpaced the ability of people to use it, and user experience is ripe for a revolution.

The man, a former math teacher, and the woman, a former nurse and staunch library advocate, were interested in how I use the device– do I use it for books, newspapers, magazines, for pleasure, work, school? They asked about how much books cost, and how easy it is to put other reading materials on to it. I love the kindle and am quite an enthusiastic advocate of new technology and shiny gadgets, so I gushed about the battery life, the way it has replaced heavy stacks of books when I travel, the merits of reading on a matte screen vs. the back-lit eye strain of the iPad, how cool it is that I can sync the text from articles and blog posts on the web to my kindle with a simple click of the Instapaper bookmarklet in my web browser or iPhone, and how I can put pretty much any text document on the kindle by simply emailing it.

They were quite intrigued by the promise of the new technology and merits of a small lightweight device that can hold thousands upon thousands of books, but their question was– is it easy to use? I thought about it for a second, and then said "No." The kindle has solved a lot of the problems associated with reading digital content quite elegantly. The screen is nearly as eye-friendly as paper, the battery life is astounding, the experience of reading is refreshingly simple. However, the process of putting non-kindle store content on the device is not user friendly at all. If I didn't spend 60-80 hours a week working on internet-conected devices, devouring tech news via twitter, hackernews, and my increasingly neglected google reader account, I probably wouldn't have discovered Instapaper, and without Instapaper I don't think I would have realized on my own that I could email documents to my kindle and download them for free via wifi. Even with the happy accident of stumbling upon instructions for kindle delivery through Instapaper, it took me a while to figure out that there was a method of doing this for free and not paying for 3G delivery of freely available content. The point is, as good as the kindle is, it took some technological proclivity and more than a little luck to truly take advantage of the device. The irony is, the kindle is one of the simplest devices I've ever used, and even it still has some major shortcomings, so what does that say about the broader state of human- computer interaction?

The pace of technological advancement has increased exponentially over the past century; everything from computing power to storage has been essentially doubling every couple of years. Raymond Kurzweil calls this incredible rate of advancement the law of accelerating returns (often confused with Moore's Law, which relates specifically to the doubling rate of transistors on a circuit), and it means that between 1950 and 2000, computing power increased by a factor of roughly 100 million. The pace of technological adoption has also increased radically over the same period. Radio, invented shortly before the dawn of the 20th centruy, took 31 years to reach mass adoption. 100 years later, the web reached mass adoption in only 7 years. Facebook reached mass adoption in roughly half that time, and Groupon half again of that, reaching an astonishing 50 million users just over 2 years.

However, in the face of this nearly incomprehensible rate technological advancement and adoption, the way that we interact with computers has advanced painfully slowly. The WIMP graphical user interface (windows, icons, menus, pointing device) that dominates computing from cell phones to computers has remained fundamentally unchanged since its invention over 30 years ago. Evolutionary advancements have been made since, and Apple's iOS has introduced some more natural, post-WIMP interactions outside of the box of the prevailing mental model, but these are really baby steps, nothing compared to the staggering advancements made in computing hardware, algorithms, and technological capacity over the same period.

Today’s technological landscape frames a unique moment in history. From cheap, abundant computing power, to an unprecedented availability of public data, and powerful APIs that allow developers to rapidly develop brilliantly advanced applications that would have been prohibitively expensive for all but the largest organizations just 5-10 years ago, even the most advanced technology is becoming a commodity. Perched on the foundation of this vast technological platform, we're standing on the precipice of a paradigm shift that will be even more radical than the shift from the command line interface to the graphical user interface. The opportunity to develop an intuitive computing experience that allows the masses to harnesses the vast technology at our disposal is so obvious and so enormous, that a revolution in user experience seems all but inevitable.

The question is, what will the coming user experience revolution look like? Perhaps it will be driven by the current generation of Natural User Interface explorations, but just as likely it will be something as radically innovative, and in hindsight as obvious, as the WIMP graphical interface is compared to the command line interface that preceded it. As cool as the famous minority report interface looks on a movie screen, I'm personally not going to be lining up anytime soon to trade in my comfy chair and laptop for a big fat case of gorilla arm. Even the now ubiquitous mulit-touch interface has some serious limitations when it comes to serious full-time use-cases, and multitouch laptop screens certainly aren't positioned to replace the mouse and keyboard.

In order to be successful, the user experience revolution needs to promote natural and intuitive experiences, humane interfaces, and adaptive technologies that interpret context in order to meet individual users' unique needs. The great challenge will be to build upon the abundant and rich technological platforms that surround us, from machine learning to location data, and to create user-centered applications that learn the user rather than requiring the user to learn them, and anticipate and adapt to the user's needs and expectations rather than demanding that the user conform to a rigid mold defined by the software. 

Whatever it looks like, the one thing that is certain is that there is an immense and immediate opportunity for innovation in user interface and experience design, and that companies like Apple who understand that technology is intrinsically worthless to the end user unless it is usable, stand to profit enormously by making technology easier and more enjoyable to use, not just by geeks like me, but by curious but intimidated individuals like the couple I met this weekened, who stared longingly at me absently flipping the pages of my sleek kindle with one hand while leisurely eating with the other, as they fumbled clumsily with their unwieldy newspapers.