Interface Design  

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Faculty at IDC

by Ravi Poovaiah, Professor, Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay

1.0   Introduction
2.0   Interface Design
3.0   The opaqueness of design (design for the black box)
4.0   Digitization as the catalyst
5.0   Products are getting smart
6.0   Ubiquitous Computing or embodied virtuality:
7.0   Our ability to form meanings
8.0   Our ability to abstract meanings
9.0   Friendly Interfaces
10.0 Metaphoring the Interface
11.0 Constructing the Interface

- Interface - interaction - its necessity - technology - consumers - interactivity

1.0 Introduction
In the coming decades, information processors are certain to be an integral part of most products (the term 'products' is being generalised here to refer to all kinds of equipment, consumer products and computer programmes). As an extension of this assumption, we might portend that this technology will offer us a variety of sophisticated means with which to interact with a product. It will also be possible to make use of all our sensory perceptions very much in the manner in which we interact with the environment. In this discussion, we are concerned with the method and quality of this interaction; with identifying the reasons that point towards a necessity for such interaction; and with ways to make this interaction as transparent as possible.

2.0  Interface Design:
''Interface' has to do with how a user operates a product to undertake and accomplish a given piece of work. A chair or a table at present has no user interface, but a thermometer with a digital readout has one. Besides achieving something, it provides the user with a set of counter-information in the form of blinking lights, beep sounds or display messages (Kolli, 1993). Interface can be thought of as 'the domain in which the product accepts inputs from the user and presents information (to the user) such that this interaction leads to an understanding of the product'(this thought has been adopted and modified from what Bonsieppe (1993) has to say regarding user interfaces). Interface might also be considered as the front-end of a product with which the user interacts, and which in its own turn communicates with the user in some way or the other. Given this, interface design would concern itself with the design of devices for operating a given product; devices which convey information-feedback on the status of the product; the path or procedure to be followed in interacting with a given product; and the language involved in this interaction. The aim is to make this interaction easy, simple, convenient, familiar and friendly -all these, of course, being easier said than done.

There are a variety of user interfaces - Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) for software applications as in MS Windows, System 7; Text-based User Interfaces (TUIs) for interaction through text manipulation as in WordStar, Autocad; Solid User Interfaces (SUIs) for products as in telephones, VCRs; Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) for equipment as in plain paper copiers, car control panels; Virtual Reality-based User Interfaces (VRUIs) for virtual environments such as that of flight simulators, virtual games; and Human Computer Interactions (HCIs) for interacting with computers.

3.0 The opaqueness of design (design for the black box)
Objects that were mechanical in nature were easier to understand because in some sense they revealed their functions visually through their formal structure or configuration. Whereas, recent developments in technology that consist of the use of automated control devices have made it possible for us to be buffered against having to learn all the intricacies of operating details inside a machine, and be concerned only with the knowledge of a minimal number of control devices required for operating a product. These controls let us operate the equipment, reveal the state of the device through its display, allow us to monitor it, and aid us in taking split-second decisions in case of an emergency. The complexities of control devices in terms of their variations and numbers are likely to compound from that of operating a lathe, to maneuvering an overhead crane or flying an aircraft, to regulating a power station or a nuclear plant. The communication of information from and also about these interfaces should not be misleading or confusing; the message should be revealed as fast as possible i.e., the information must be communicated properly, efficiently and conveniently (Poovaiah, 1991). With the advent of micro processors, the working details of a product have become quite opaque almost like a black box whose intricacies on how it functions is no longer essential to know. When we operate a cassette player, a washing machine, a television or a microwave oven, we interact with the mostly invisible components of the machine by manipulating various controls usually conveniently located on a display panel. These act as an interface between the user and the machine. This necessitates that the interface should be designed appropriately to reveal the operating functions of the product. As against the concern of engineering designers who conceive of products from inside out with emphasis on their operating functions, interface designers work in the reverse by having to design from the outside in, making the customer's use of the product and not the technology central to all product development (Nussbaum, 1993).

4.0 Digitization as the catalyst:
'Just as vinyl LP's gave way to digital compact discs in the 1980's, more and more of the information around us in the 1990's is likely to be converted into digital bits of binary information. Everything from the analog waves of telephone calls, the radio and the television to the images of movies, photos and paintings are going to become digital. Once all this information has been converted to bits, it can be manipulated just like any other data on a computer. Such a prospect already points towards a dramatic re-ordering of the computer, consumer electronics, entertainment and information industries' (Rebello, 1992).

With the basis for transformation being digitisation, it can now make for easier conversion, inputting, transmission, receival and manipulation of inputs from the different media. Representation of these media by means of the text, illustrations, graphics, animation, moving images, and sound which were under the preview of separate media up until now will in all likelihood find easier integration into a single multimedia information-processing device. The products will also be able to talk to each other because of digitalisation. Digital technology seems to offer in terms of convenience and creativity, several alternatives to accomplishing a given task. For example, a switch to operate a light could either sense one's presence in the dark or respond to voice commands - providing an interface in terms of darkness and light. Today, there are more and more devices available for designing an interface that have made it easier to conceive of interacting with a product using the most appropriate media or even a combination of media.

5.0 Products are getting smart:

When information processors become a part of almost all products, they assign to products a certain flexibility in terms of their functioning. Products can respond in ways that are easier to grasp and understand. Many of the physical operations that were essential for operating a product can now be programmed to look after themselves. A washing machine does all the different cycles of washing by itself. In this case, its interaction with the user can be restricted to the minimal. 'Sometimes these interactive products are capable of modifying their behaviour on the basis of some external variable. This means that they are no more passive, but they set up a relationship and they establish an interaction with the user' (Manzini, 1988). The product and the user act with and react to each other . 'Man-made objects have begun to operate like they are alive for users. This means products can be designed to have the ability to understand and accept changes' (Sunaga, 1993). All this can be thought of as humanisation of the product environment that we make use of in our daily interaction.

6.0 Ubiquitous Computing or embodied virtuality:
Mark Weiser, writing on the above subject in the Scientific American (1992), asserts that the most profound of technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it and are able to focus beyond them onto new goals. Examples of this are the act of driving, reading, writing etc. To understand how technologies disappear into the background he considers the vanishing of the electric motor. At the turn of the century, a typical workshop contained a single motor that drove many different machines through a system of shafts and pulleys. Development of cheap, small, efficient motors have made it possible to give each tool its own source of power. At Xerox PARC, many are now working on what is called 'Ubiquitous Computing'. This aims at integrating computers seamlessly into the world at large, so well integrated that its presence is not even felt. For example, an alarm clock could ask for 'coffee' or 'tea' and would understand coffee, tea, yes and no as the only words it is programmed to know. 'Ubiquitous computers have to be cheap, low powered, have to come in different sizes with convenient inputs and outputs, each suited to a particular task with a network that ties them all together. This system would, in turn, make individuals more important than the unhealthy centripetal forces that computers have introduced into the workplace' (Weiser,1992). The role of the designer here would be to design machines that fit the human environment instead of endeavouring humans to be compatible with machines.

7.0 Our ability to form meanings:
We seem to have the facility to form a language - to assign meaning into meaningless things and even to conceive of symbols by following an arbitrary convention. Lets us consider the National Flag - which is nothing but a piece of cloth ; but abound in meanings of patriotism, reverence,respect, oneness; it can also be represented by the word 'FLAG'; or reconstructed again with the pronounciated sound of 'Flag'; and constructed by individual meaningless letters 'F' 'L' 'A' 'G'.

This formation of meaning by arbitrary means has helped in our ability to exchange information, store information and finally to expand our knowledge of the world. We are constantly in the process of extending and increasing this vocabulary. We seem to be able to look at new relationships, contexts and situations; assign meanings to these , become familiar with these and then internalise these relations. For example, when we pick up a phone, we seem to understand that the lower part constitutes the mouthpiece while the upper part the earphone; and also the understanding that this object can be used for speaking to and hearing from someone comes about as part of the relationship between the telephone receiver and us. We might say that this meaning-association arises when there is both the existence of a telephone as well as the person to use it. The receiver 'affords' us the message that 'this is where the message comes out from'. This constitutes the viewpoint that man-made objects are made up of parts called "messages" (Sunaga, 1993). Or to give another example, some of us use our visual memory based on the configuration of push buttons to diagrammatically remember a phone number; the touch-tone buttons have a spatial connotation about them. Can these messages be changed over a period of time ? Interface design should propose looking at this ability as building up of a language that one could relate to and understand in the future.

8.0 Our ability to abstract meanings:
Try to express yourself or introduce yourself in the following manner:
a) by means of actions and without using any words.
b) by means of your ability to draw without using any text.
c) by means of sounds that you can produce without actually using any words. It is surprising that though it seems difficult in the beginning, we have been able to achieve a fair amount of success in the above tasks (Kolli, 1993). This means that we have the ability to abstract messages and translate these between different modes of representation, which use different senses. In our daily interaction with others we seem to be communicating by using many of our senses by using words, gestures, and our sense of touch. For example, the blind remember phone numbers because of the provision of scales in beep tones that are associated with touch button phones. Interface designers can certainly make use of this ability to enhance the quality of interaction with a product.

9.0 Friendly Interfaces:
The process of operating a product can be made an exciting, memorable and beautiful experience. Even the process of learning can be conceived of as an enriching process. Surprise, challenge, entertainment seem to be the sustaining forces for all these interactions. For example, your doorbell can be programmed to alert you in over a thousand surprising ways. Can some of these 'sensexciting' factors be part of the new product environment? It also means that not only should we be able to identify the functions of equipment and remember them, but be able to enjoy interacting with these in an almost user-friendly manner. These aspects would certainly extend the meaning of user-friendliness itself.

10.0 Metaphoring the Interface:
The elements of the interface comprising various control devices represent varieties in terms of form, differences in the qualities of textural surfaces for extending the sense of touch, related actions to operate these, graphics and texts and sometimes audio associations to identify them. These controls could respond in the form of an action, in a change of form or get animated or have an audio feedback.

To make it more convenient to remember and understand the above aspects of an interface, designers have realised that it is easier to relate its features and actions semantically to something that is of a similar nature and is familiar in the world of the user. One of the possible devices that a designer could resort to is the use of a metaphor, whose 'basic premise is the juxtaposition of familiar elements in unfamiliar ways, the connecting of ideas and things not previously connected, to serve as the mechanism in order to constitute new meaning and in turn to gain in expressiveness. The process and result of designing with the metaphor is that elements undergo a change in losing their familiar meaning and contexts and recombine to produce an entirely new knowledge' (Johns, 1984). A successful example is the desk-top metaphor used by the Macintosh range of computers complete with folders and files lying around a virtual workplace and the use of further sub-categories of metaphors like the 'dustbin' for discarding information, or the 'bomb' to show that a program has hung up. 'The use of metaphors seems to be able to aid the process of interaction by providing terms, images and concepts that are easily recognised, understood and remembered' (Marcus, 1993). The product has different connotations and usually replaces or extends one of our activities in some way or the other. For example, a watch could denote your status, your preferences of style, etc. in addition to denoting time. Communicating this semantic dimension of the product could provide a means to identify it, personify it and integrate the product into our own world of meanings.

11.0 Constructing the Interface:
The design process in the design of an interfaces, needs to be conceived as a temporal process in terms of an interaction across time; as an organisation of its various elements in terms of an arrangement across space; and as a physical activity in terms of a development across our sensory capabilities. The amalgamation of the characteristics of these three variables define the syntax of an interface.
The diachronic nature of an interface necessitates that we look at the aspect of time as a design dimension. Interaction with a product means that we need to organise the sequences of events that make up the interface, and design it from this temporal point of view. This would require that we break up the activities in the form of a story board, something akin to working on a script, and then analyse each of these activities and propose appropriate design solutions.
Most activities of design have dealt with the aspect of organising shapes in either two dimensional or three dimensional space. Interface has to deal with the display screen with its virtual depth which can access information randomly from hidden layers. This brings to design a way of organising information in terms of different layers and levels.
Interaction and devices that allow this are potential multipliers of cerebral or sensorial capabilities. The designer needs to use the 'flexibility offered by new technologies to come up with interfaces that are articulate in more than one language and more than one language of communication' (Manzini, 1988).

All indications are that designers who have until now been involved with visual communication will have to become part of the team that executes the design of interfaces. This means that those with the knowledge of the language of graphic communications will now have to morph this with aspects of problem solving of an interactivity that has begun to include the dimension of time. The above-mentioned thoughts are only an indicator of the efforts that we must make in this direction.

- Bonsiepe, G, Interpretations of Human User Interface, Visible Language, 1990, 262- 285.
- Johns, B., Visual Metaphor: Lost and found, Semiotica, Vol 52 -3/4, 1984.
- Kolli,R., From notes for a 'Workshop on Interaction Design' at IDC, 1992.
- Nussbaum, B.,Hot Products, Smart Design is the Common Thread, Business Week, June 7, 1993,40-43.
- Manzini,E., Interactivity, Ottagono, March, 1993. o Marcus, A, Human Communications Issues in Advanced Uls, Communications of the ACM, April, 1993,101-109.
Poovaiah, R. Hypermedia for education: the Rhetorics of a new media, Design Issues-3, IDC publication, 1993.
- Rebell, K., etc.,Your Digital Future, Business Week, September 7, 1992,48-54. o Sunaga,T., Education for Interface Design: Designing Change and Message, Industrial Design 157, (Japanese), 1992, 62-63.
- Weiser, M, The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, September, 1991, 66-75.

- The above paper was presented in the seminar 'Design Odyssey', November 1994 at IDC, IIT Bombay

Contact Details:
Industrial design Centre,
Indian Institute of Technology,
Powai, Mumbai 400076