When computers were invented an interface for us to communicate with them needed to be invented too. Welcome the GUI - Graphical User Interface - or what we know as our visual interaction using a screen or buttons.
More recently we have Siri, Cortana and OK Google so that we can talk to our devices instead - with varying degrees of success. This isn't new, we have been talking to computers in call centers and booking cinema tickets for a while - again with varying levels of exasperation.
We also have a type of chatbot in text interfaces such as Slack, Facebook and friends who in the background are doing things for us like adding a user to the conversation or as in Facebook booking us a dinner reservation.
So this isn't new, in fact - as a lot of technology first starts - it was foreseen in science fiction literature decades ago.
We don't talk to each other by seeing colours and pressing buttons, and as computers - or robots - become more intelligent it begs to reason why we wouldn't talk to them in the same way as we talk to each other. This is called Conversational or Discursive UI. I am not talking about robot humans such as in the recent BBC TV program ‘Humans’ or films like Ex Machina. But a conversational interface replacing our current visual interface as a way to communicate with (or get what we want from) our technology.
Why? well this can allow the bots in the computer to do some of the thinking for us. Why haven't we done it before? -
well because programming computers to understand the nuances of human language is tricky. And up until recently we didn't have connected devices with microphones in virtually every pocket. The more people talk to computers the more the software can collectively learn.
Currently we just use computers as tools, but I would like them to do some joined up thinking for me as well thus reducing the amount of brain power I need to say book a travel itinerary, schedule a meeting or manage the constantly shifting logistics of my children’s social calendar.
A common example is Uber’s app on the Apple Watch - theoretically “Take me home” uses GPS to alert the taxi to where you are, linking to your Uber account which knows where you live, and adding a time “In half an hour” - job done. You can finish enjoying your evening and stroll out to find your car waiting. Hmmm... yes, although this isn't science fiction, GPS can often lose you if you happen to be having your lovely evening in the middle of a forest - or more likely a crowded or built up place. But this isn't the fault of the conversational interface, it is more that GPS coverage isn't perfect. In theory this saves lots of fiddling around on small phone screens, and I hope shows that i-Watches do actually have their place.
And finally why do we need it? - aren’t we happy with how things are, why do we need to keep progressing.
Well the answer if you think about it, is actually the amount of frustration our technology brings us. Running out of battery, undecipherable error messages, complicated routers, networks and connections, brain power - our own brain power to take our tools through each step of the process we want to achieve. Before computers, bosses would dictate a letter to their secretary and move on. In the background the secretary would type it, take feedback, present it for signature and circulate it managing and fielding questions and replies to free up her employer to concentrate on less admin orientated tasks. With the advent of computers, keyboards and emails we have brought a vast amount of admin into our lives, admin that in this day and age we should be tasking our computers to figure out how to get done, again freeing us up to run the business, innovate the product, look after our clients or fulfill the service.
It's easy to shrug and say, stupid computer it doesn’t understand, I have to do it for it - bad workmen and all that - but just as we took to first screen and mouse and then touch screen devices so too will the software and our understanding and interaction improve until we look back at the clunky interfaces of 2016 and laugh at the caveman like aspect of interaction.
II know, it may be odd for a designer as I am to be heralding the death of my chosen profession. But my job as an interface designer is to make the best possible experience for my user, - whether that is visual, touch or audio - not force the user to work to my own agenda… for that visually creative outlet I always have art.
I am a freelance Website Designer, Logo Designer, Graphic Designer and Digital Artist based in Suffolk.
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PS. if you would rather sit back and listen to this article. Just search for ‘text to speech’ in your browser extensions and away you go.
PPS. I haven't talked about accessibility here, and it goes without saying that whatever interface we design, we must make it as inclusive to all whether visually or hearing impaired or many many other forms of disability where the internet is a lifeline, and the accessibility of it a constant battle.