Besides the computer-based versions of an interface, I think sometimes it’s cool to step back and think about how real world applications of computer concepts apply to the work we do from day to day in pixel land. This is an adapted version of a blog entry I wrote about two years ago, updated to apply today.
On Dictionary.com, my favorite definition for the word interface is this:
A point at which independent systems or diverse groups interact. Source »
People stuck in the computer world tend to only think of an interface as what is visually (or aurally, depending on many factors, ability being one of them) depicted on the screen. A user interface is commonly thought of as the invisible layer that connects information coming out from the application with user input going into the computer. The part of the system where input and output is exchanged can be thought of as the user’s interface with the application, however I like to think that this is not the only “interface” one should think about.
Sky and ground
When you look up at the sky and then trace the skyline down to where it connects back with the earth, you are looking at the horizon line. This is the connecting point where terra firma meets with atmosphere (at least visually) and can be considered the meeting point of two wholly separate, but interdependent entities. This is where the sky and ground interface.
The horizon line is not always straight: the connecting line takes the shape of this two-way juncture and if there are mountains reaching up from the ground the horizon line will be physically different than if there were no mountains at all. It can be said that the horizon line is a compromise between the ground and the sky, where the meeting of these two massive elements is modified based on variables found in either of the two conjoining parties. I find the horizon analogy useful for talking about what an interface truly means — a give-and-take arrangement between two different, but constantly connected, elements of the world.
Everywhere an interface
When discussing a person’s experience with their surrounding environment, one can imagine that at every single moment of one’s day, they are faced with a finite number of environmental interfaces. A walk down a hall cannot simply be thought of as getting from Point A to Point B, but it is rather your goals and intentions meeting with the hall’s goals and intentions. Your intent is to move quickly and safely down the hall in order to get to your final destination, while a hall is designed to be a connecting space between two rooms or spaces.
A hall is not designed to protect you from the elements (that’s what a roof does), or to keep your feet warm in the winter (that’s what carpeting does), or to alert you to obstacles in your path (that’s what a lighting fixture does), but rather to be the connecting space between Point A and Point B and nothing more. Your goal of moving down the hall to get somewhere fits in nicely with the hall’s purpose of connecting two open spaces, however when you mix in additional elements to this interface, you are adding additional variables that could potentially disrupt this communicative process. If you trip while you are walking down the hall, it is not a communication breakdown between the hall and yourself (remember, this “communication” I’m talking about is the give-and-take between your goals and the hall’s intrinsic purpose) but rather an interruption between the environmental interface. You tripped because your toe got caught in the carpet and because there wasn’t enough light to notice the snag, not because the hall didn’t do its job or because you didn’t know how to walk correctly down it. What happened was a communication breakdown caused by external factors associated with your interface with the hall, not with you or the hall itself.
When you first buy a VCR (huh? a VCR? what’s that!) the blinking 12:00 will plague your life for as long as you let the clock go unset. The blinking number is the VCR’s way of letting you know that setting the time is probably a good idea, and your goal for this situation is to interact with the VCR in such a way as to 1) make the blinking stop, and 2) correctly set the time. So your goals and the VCR’s goals are a close match, both you and it want the clock to be changed, so why is this such a big deal?
The problem arises when you actually try and change the time. Just like when you tripped in the hallway, there are many variables that can cause you to err in your interaction with the environment, and in the VCR’s case, the cryptic buttons and programming sequence is what is tripping you up. You want to change the time, the VCR blinks 12:00 to let you know that setting the time is possible, however the buttons and widgets on the VCR can tangle you up and stop you from ever getting the blinking to stop. These little technological variables get in the way of your interaction with the VCR, therefore your goals and the VCR’s goals cannot be met without great difficulty.
These external factors
Earlier I mentioned that there are a finite number of external interfaces/situations available at any given point in time, and I want to elaborate more on why I feel it is a finite number as opposed to an infinite one.
There are a finite number of people on this earth, and if every single person on the planet had their hand in a different environmental factor (one person made the carpeting in your hall, another made the light fixture, another designed the wallpaper on the wall, another person developed the vacuum cleaner used to vacuum your hall’s shaggy carpet, etc. etc.) there would still only be a finite number of external factors with which you could interact in a given situation. Even if you cut your hand on the wall, tripped over the vacuum, got a rug burn from the carpet, and managed to touch or interact somehow with something designed by every single person on this planet, you would still only have a finite number of external factors working their way into the basic interface you started with — your goal of moving down the hall interacting with the hall’s purpose of connecting multiple rooms. Because of this, and because there is not an infinite amount of anything on this earth, there are only a finite number of variables that can work their way into your communicative process with something in the environment.
The best software communication
Just like when carpet causes you to trip down the hall, overly heavy or counterintuitive software interfaces can cause you to “trip” when using the application. Even though our daily lives are fairly complicated, if you break down exactly what you need to keep track of and remember, those definitely aren’t as complicated — the who, what, where, when and why of our routines. If you allow people to elegantly store such information and appropriately link data together (drag the “where” on top of the “when” and you have an event, drag the “why” to the “who” and you have an interpersonal relationship, etc.) then you’ve got yourself a hit. One of the reasons that 37signals’ apps were such a breakout hit when they appeared is because they gave people simple tools that they could use in ways that made sense without the interface getting in the way. The next version of Backpack is basically a personal database and organizer, they’re getting out of the user’s way and allowing you to add whatever you want, in whatever order, when you want, stored however you want.
Ning allows people to link certain data models and interfaces together to create something meaningful, Dabble DB finds and stores information and lets you play with it to create more meaning. Backpack lets you organize your life, Ning lets you build services that help you on your life path, and Dabble lets you pull meaning out of seemingly meaningless data. What ties these three applications together is that you are given a set of tools and then you figure the rest out for yourself. People are smart, I think that instead of creating tiny, focused applications (and turning them into companies) there should be more broadly-focused software that relies on human knowledge and intuition.