Bill Buxton – NUI: What’s in a name?

By | November 3, 2010

Took a break from running my Cthulhu game tonight to go see a presentation by Bill Buxton for the Puget Sound SIGCHI entitled “Natural user interfaces: What’s in a name?”. Here are the key ideas I took away from it:

  • Know your history – Bill talked a lot about history in design, how many of the design elements in modern products are based on design ideas that have proven to have worked in the past – standing on the shoulders of giants and all that. He was careful not to say that this is a bad thing, but instead that it’s inevitable, and precisely the sort of thing that good designers should do – every great designer knows the history of work in their area. It’s not just true in interface design either – just as the people designing the best multi-touch systems today know about and riff on multi-touch systems designed in the 1980s, so do designers in advertising, fashion, music, and all sorts. It’s not about copying, but about inspiration, and it seems that user interface designers generally know far more about the history of their favorite music than they do of interface design in their area. So, there’s a hole in the way we educate designers here. Bill’s a collector of obscure pieces of interface, and the talk was riddled with them. This idea rang a bell with me, as I never feel more educated and inspired about design than when I’ve just spent time poking through old design ideas and research – it gives me a great sense of context and strips away the feeling that I’m off trying to work things out on my own. Apparently he’s putting a book together on the topic, one that I’ll be very keen to read.
  • The Long Nose – related to the previous point, and riffing on the idea of the Long Tail, this is the idea that most new ideas take quite some time to get to a stage that they can be productized and used to make large stacks of cash. Before that, ideas go through a long process of refinement and prototyping, sometimes with ups and downs due to hype and disappointment. He illustrated this with multi-touch screens as seen on the iPhone and Microsoft Surface, both systems released or announced in around 2007, but based on technologies that have been quietly evolving, but failing to make large amounts of money since their invention in around 1980. This isn’t a new idea, but an interestingly articulated one – a related idea is the hype cycle, where new technologies go through a phase of hype and hope, then fall into the ‘trough of disillusionment’ from which they eventually emerge as mature technologies on the ‘plateau of productivity’. Bill’s point was mostly that as designers we should stress less about coming up with the next great new idea, but instead ‘look beneath the radar’ to see which ideas are up and coming, then work on them. Roughly quoted, he said ‘Almost every great idea has come when the designer wasn’t looking for it’ – flashes of insight don’t come on schedule, they come when you’re immersed in a creative process, and often they’re not quite the creative idea you were originally looking for. Hence the power of brain-storming and other structured creative processes.
  • A skill is an aggregate of skills – What is a skill? Turns out it’s hard to define with any real depth. Bill used the example of a sports car he once owned and used to try and impress girls while an undergraduate. He related an incident where the girl he was driving wanted him to let her move the gear stick when he changed gears which, as anyone who’s tried it knows, is much harder to manage than just doing it yourself. This is counter-intuitive – you’d think that subtracting some responsibility from a skill would make it easier. The reason for this is that a skill is an aggregate of simpler skills practiced such that it can be performed unconsciously; that is, it doesn’t have to be thought through step by step. Removing something from that aggregate suddenly forces us to reconsider the skills that make it up again, reducing the skill to a sequence of events that require conscious thought to enact. The new sequence is no longer a skill under this definition until it’s practiced enough to again become unconscious. Subtracting parts from a skill might create a sequence of events that’s easier to learn than those making up the original skill, but you don’t automatically possess this new, potentially simpler skill. In this case, it’s easy to argue that the resulting sequence of events _isn’t_ easier, as it would involve coordinating actions with another individual, which is itself fairly complex.
  • Context matters – a lot – This didn’t get as much attention in the talk that I would have liked, but the basic idea is that the value of an interface design varies widely according to the context in which is used. Bill used the somewhat comical example of how the interface to a martial arts game with the Kinect is clearly not the sort of interface you want to similar martial arts game played on the seat back on an airplane. For me, one nice point that comes out of this is that it dispels the completely irrational notion that ‘all the fun problems have been solved’ that crops up now and then in the darker, self-doubting recesses of my mind. No matter how many technologies are out there and no matter how well defined the interaction idioms are, there are always new contexts into which we must design, and so the process and challenge of interface design is never-ending. Maybe not a world changing idea, but one that’s good for my sanity – there’s probably a series of posts in this issue should I choose to write them, but I think I’ll leave that one for now.
  • Context is hard – The next big hurdle that we need to overcome as designers is how to make our devices seamlessly handle context shifts. Bill pointed out that we shouldn’t be proud of making devices that don’t crash, just as we don’t give awards to civil engineers simply because their bridges don’t collapse – meeting the status quo in our products is not cause for celebration, its a basic expectation. Unfortunately, handling context shifts quickly leads to the necessity of interoperability between diverse devices, and hardware and software makers are just awful at this – everyone has to have their own proprietary protocols, their own ecosystem into which you buy and never leave. If we want our devices to be able to seamlessly shift between different technological contexts at more than a basic level, we’re going to have to get better as an industry at agreeing to follow standards, even if such standards are specifically designed to be extensible on a product specific basis.

These aren’t miracle ideas – I’ve heard all of them in some form or another in the past, but what made this talk really interesting was the way in which Bill laced them together. I’ve not done this justice by listing them individually, but at no point during his talk was it clear that he was really talking about just one of these – even the slides introducing a particular concept mentioned above linked neatly into discussion about one of the other concepts, and Bill’s delivery and quiet, self and employer deprecating humour was well appreciated.

Tonight I’m off to another talk that might be interesting; this one put on by Dorkbot Seattle, who describe themselves as ‘people doing strange things with electricity’, hosted at Jigsaw Renaissance, a local maker space. I’m kind of excited about this, as I’ve been meaning to check them out for a while now – I’ve never been to a ‘proper’ maker space, so it’ll be interesting to see what the people and the space are like.