When technology fades – a glimpse at the future of interaction design

As technology pervades our modern life, a truly elegant interaction becomes one in which the interface – the controls – disappear, and the functions of a ‘smart object’ become inherent to the object itself. Two recent examples give me hope that we’re starting to get there…

We are a long way away from such elegance today. Our interfaces are still obvious; our interactions conscious. The clumsy and aptly-named “poke” represents the pinnacle of social interaction design – a ham-fisted tactic for attention-seeking. It is the modern equivalent of ‘pay attention to me!’

Our computer operating systems, our devices, our white goods are all similarly juvenile, despite their sophistication. We have come a long way from a spear point knapped from stone and affixed to a shaft. A long way from levers, pulleys and ropes. A long way from punch cards and green screens.

And yet that ‘progress’ has been accompanied by a shift ever forward into focus. Obscuring our humanity even as it extends our reach and capability.

In the last ten years our technology has finally begun to reverse that trend. We now talk across the gulf of distance and time to family and friends. We share our lives with those people through technology, in real time, in a way that users of the telegram, the telegraph and telephone would not have imagined. (And yet perhaps they would. When the transcontinental telegraph – running north-south across Australia – was finally connected in the mid 1870’s, the first message relayed was to inform one of the workers in the middle of the desert that he was now a father.)

Yes, this is progress. And yet as a designer I can’t but help feel as though our efforts are conceptually rough & ready. Using the crude tools of the day we do the best we can, but we should recognise those crude efforts for what they are.

Technology has a long way to go before it truly fades into the background. Already ubiquitous it is the noisy, needy, attention-seeker; constantly interrupting and demanding. It is also, too often, aimed at the trivial; at the inconsequential.

So to what do we aim? If our interactions with, and through, technology today tend towards the boorish and complex, what is it we seek?

My favourite piece of ‘technology’ is a Parker Sonnet fountain pen. It is devoid of electronic componentry. It has no ‘interface’; generates no data; connects not a whit with the world around it. Its black lacquer surface remains smooth and firm across a wide temperature range despite the lack of any ‘slip-less’ textured areas or ‘grip pads’.

The ink flows smoothly to an italic, medium nib made of gold. It has a small quirk in that it tends to lose ink at low pressure – when flying or at altitude; evaporating or drying rather than leaking I’ve experienced with other ink-based pens.

As a device the fountain pen represents technology hundreds of years old. So old, in fact, that we no longer think of it as technology. And yet the fountain pen, whilst being vaguely understandable, would seem wholly remarkable to a scholar of the 17th century.

To our modern eyes, surrounded by digital displays, electronics, wireless communications and augmented reality, we see the fountain pen not as a member of the technological cadre, but as a simple tool.

As so, perhaps, that should be our aim as designers – not to design technology – but to design the digital equivalents of tools and utensils. Objects imbued with everything modern science, engineering and art have to offer, with the feel of a sturdy, uncomplicated, reliable and predictable tool.

The holidays are behind us for another year, a time of year at which we bestow gifts upon our family and friends. And increasingly, the gifts we bestow are a combination of the object and electronic.

At hundreds or thousands of dollars, these marvels of modern technology arrive with the promise of a brave new world. New features; a change in lifestyle; a future of self-awareness and connectivity to the world around us.

The reality of our holiday get-togethers are sadly different. Complicated instructions and set up processes lead to early frustration. Each hurdle overcome is another too many.

An objective look around the room in the immediate aftermath of such gift-giving would raise some eyebrows and question our concept of ‘gift’. Is that solitary figure, muttering to themselves as they ignore the family around them really becoming more connected?

Accessories; accounts; plug-ins; paraphrenalia. The additions are nearly as confusing as the gadgets themselves. Whilst we engross ourselves in the process of opening up ‘a world of possibility’, we increasingly isolate ourselves from the world right in front of our faces.

For many, the initial complexity and confusion leads to a permanent state of under-use or consignment to a drawer or shelf to gather dust.

Our modern attempts at the elegance of the fountain pen tend to fall far short. Bu in the past year I have seen two projects that lead me to have increased faith in our ability to get there.

During the judging for the 2013 Interaction Awards two projects stodd out for me in this context of simplicity: paper, by fiftythree (Winner, Expressing); and 21 Balancoires, by Daily tous les jours (Winner of Best in Show).

Paper is an app for the iPad that provides a palette of artistic tools and a blank, paper-like canvas. The tools behave in a manner very similar to their real-world counterparts, allowing for the smooth transition from physical to digital creative environment.

More importantly for me, the technology of paper takes a back seat, coming to the foreground only at the user’s express command. For the rest of the time tool palettes disappear and the page takes over the entire screen.

Apps, and most software for that matter, generally fail at striking this balance. Instead the screen bristles with palettes, tools and menus creating a cramped and cluttered workspace. For that reason paper stands out from the crowd.

21 Balancoires is an installation project undertaken in the city of Montreal. This enchanting projects presents itself in the very familiar form of a simple swing.

The enticing simplicity of the ‘interface’ draws people in, encouraging use. And at that point, from that first pendulous interaction, the pieces begins to reveal its capabilities.

In its entirety 21 Balancoires is made up of seven swing triplets set up in a row. The swings bring life to an urban ‘dead zone’, quite literally attracting people to their sound, light and charming simplicity.

As individual becomes couple, the response of the swing changes, playing more complex tunes in sync to the rhythm and synchronicity of the swings. More people leads to greater complexity – cacophony or harmony.

Through the ‘interface’ of the swing, people are able to engage in an individual or collective activity.

In many respects these two projects represent for me an evolution in our relationship with technology and serve as a model for the future design of ‘smart objects’. They are a reversal of the century-long trend of human contorting to fit the technology. Instead, we see here two examples of technology clearly in service to people, and equally taking a secondary role to the human interactions and actions taking place.

As we look around at the centres of focus for technology innovation today most are yet to take this step. Mobile payments, for example, present largely incremental changes to a well-established pattern. The payment interactions are still awkward, self-conscious and far too centre-stage. And whilst this may seem necessary, both paper and 21 Balancoires suggest a way forward beyond this awkwardness. A future in which technology is seamless, silent, attentive, responsive, and uncomplicated.

This is a goal we pursue at Meld Studios and one towards which we make constant progress.