New UI Paradigms

02 December 2008

I've recently purchased a new laptop and one of its capabilities is the option to use a multi-touch screen interface, in a similar manner to the Apple iPhone. This capability allows the operator to use more than one finger to manipulate the graphical interface, for example to zoom or shrink content. This multi-touch capability represents the first consumer implementation of a genuinely new UI paradigm.

These paradigms occur periodically, migrating from research labs to commercial applications to consumers as cost of production falls. Some examples are:

  • video display terminals in the 1960s;

  • the adoption of the mouse and the graphical-user interface, as popularised at Xerox Parc and subsequently adopted by Apple and Microsoft;

  • single-touch stylus and finger technologies, such as in PDAs and in public-access terminals in tourist information offices and museums.

In terms of presenting information to a wider audience, there are UI paradigm shifts here, too. The most recent one is the decline in the use of the overhead projector, replaced by computer projection systems and "smart" whiteboards. Here, though, convergence appears to be happening with multi-touch capability: for a mere USD100,000 you can a purchase a "multi-collaboration wall".

Interestingly, there was a cross-fertilisation between fact and fiction in the creation of the visual effect of an interactive 3D-wall in the film Minority Report. The development of these scenes was instigated by the some of the film's research collaborators who were also involved of the development of the multi-touch Microsoft Surface: released in 2007, this one of the first such commercial applications outside of the iPhone.

An awareness of these new paradigms is useful when writing requirements in a technology-neutral way. This awareness can prevent design biases creeping in; for example, if workshop attendees are fixated on mouse-and-keyboard solution thinking, you could remind them that other forms of user-interface could be possible solutions.

This approach is also useful if you are engaging suppliers in competitive dialogue [opens PDF in new window]. By keeping your systems requirements at a high level and technology-agnostic, you can take advantage of potential suppliers' expertise to allow you to reach a better solution. You may have co-workers already experimenting in these solution areas that could help you select the most appropriate supplier.

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