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The Interface Of The Future Is No Interface At All

Interacting with computers and devices is becoming more and more transparent. Like, literally.

Out with the old

In recent years, there’s been quite the paradigm shift regarding the way we interact with computers and devices. Rather than humans having to learn how to operate devices, devices themselves are now adopting human behavior. I still remember the olden days, back when MS-DOS was still a thing and required some elaborate manoeuvring if you wanted to get something done. In my case, it was usually just to format the hard drive after having bricked the whole system again by downloading some shady files, thinking they were innocent video game demos. I was just a little whippersnapper back then, we all need to learn somehow. The point is, if you didn’t know the right commands, you weren’t going anywhere fast.

In with the new

We’ve definitely come a long way since then. Interacting with computers has become a much smoother experience. We went from having to type entire text commands in a terminal, to tapping and swiping on a touch-sensitive screen, to literally talking to our devices. Even our trusty input devices, the ol’ keyboard and mouse, are starting to feel old and clunky compared to the emerging voice-controlled assistants and the onset of brain-computer interfaces, just to name a few examples. Having said that, it seems like we’re on the brink of yet another major disruption. We’re moving away from conventional interface design where we have to manually input commands to extract the information we need, or complete the actions we want to take. We want to forget about the whole thing altogether, and therefore have our choices made for us instead, or at least to an extent. Hence the title; the interface of the future is no interface at all.

That sounded rather spicy, so allow me to elaborate. For one, I think we can all agree that technology has indeed made our lives more convenient, right? We can or want to automate just about everything. You’ve got all the information and knowledge in the world at your fingertips, as well as access to pretty much everything and everyone at all times; it’s kind of insane when you really think about it. But, as with every coin, there’s a flipside. This flood of information and possibilities comes with a nearly unimaginable array of choices we, as human operators, have to make, which can be overwhelming for sure.

Too many cooks will spoil the broth

In case you’re still wondering, choice fatigue is very real. On average, we make thousands of decisions on a daily basis, however big or small. The more decisions we need to make, the lesser our ability to make effective choices altogether. In the realm of digital products, I reckon we still have more or less the same set of intents as before, but lately,  the different opportunities to fulfill said intents, has increased tremendously. Users are given more and more control, essentially eliminating all sorts of middlemen from our economy, but this trend has progressed to the point that we, ourselves, are becoming the middlemen in our own lives. So, the next logical step would be to try and automate the decision-making process.

Damn Google, you read my mind

So how would one go about doing that? At its core, we just want to make our lives more simple, and save time by doing so. One way to achieve this is by granting devices the power to make decisions on our behalf. Obviously we’re not talking about AI-powered surrogate moms that dictate how we should live our lives; it’s got more to do with machine learning. It’s called anticipatory design, and it’s cool as heck.

The idea is simple: automate decision-making on behalf of the user, based on previously observed behavior. It’s forecasting, essentially. Here at Bothrs, it’s hard for us not to get excited by what the cool kids are now calling ambient computing. Artificial intelligence, agents, sensors and devices all putting the Internet of Things to work. It’s anticipatory design put in practice. Take Google Nest for instance. An internet-powered thermostat that automatically adjusts room temperature based on previous prior choices made by the user. Over time, you never have to think about your thermostat ever again, because it already knows what temperature you want to set it at.

Alexa, where’s my car?

What else is there that could facilitate the decision-making process, or alleviate us from that dreadful choice fatigue? Remember when I said how devices are starting to adopt human behavior? That’s right, in case you missed it, conversational technology is poppin’ off right now. From voice-controlled assistants to intricate chatbots, the future will most likely be conversational, for a number of reasons. For one, it takes away the need of an expansive user interface. This is especially true when we’re dealing with voice control. Imagine it’s late, you’re hungry and you’re wondering if your favorite pizza place is still open. Traditionally, you’d whip out your phone and enter a query in Google, which will show you a content card of sorts with all the business hours on it, leaving you to decide whether it’s actually open or not. But what you’re really looking for was a more straightforward answer. “Yeah, it’s still open right now”, is what you wanted to hear. And that precisely where voice assistants and chatbots come in. You ask a direct question and you get the answer you want. Nothing less, but especially nothing more either. It’s called efficiency, people!

From a business perspective, both anticipatory as well as conversation design basically tie into another layer of hyper-personalization. Our eyes are getting assaulted with information, adverts and stories by companies, and brands are losing their staying power in our consideration sets as a direct result. In other words, cutting through the noise has never been easier yet more difficult at the same time for companies. So it makes perfect sense that companies, too, are now embracing this ‘new’ way of communicating with potential customers and relaying information to them by means of instant messaging and AI-assisted chatbots.

Putting it all into practice

A while back, the team of designers and developers at Bothrs built an embedded application that did just that; we called it the Dreambuddy. Retailer Dreamland was looking to up their conversion rate over the past holiday season, so we put together and AI-powered bot that was able to suggest a selection of gifts to the user, based on previously gathered information. The design is anticipatory in the sense that the users don’t have to browse through the entire Dreamland catalog themselves, but rather have a selection made for them, based on a small survey they had to fill in prior to that; in this case, some basic details about the person the gift is supposed to be for. It’s conversational in the sense that, well, it’s built to look like a chatbot. It turned out to be a success, because finding the right gift can indeed be bothersome; I think we’ve all been there. Dreamland’s massive product catalog is a little overwhelming, to be sure, and this was a good attempt at alleviating some decision-making hurdles.

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