Much to no one’s surprise, Microsoft debuted two tablets yesterday, both called Surface, both running Windows 8 variants.
This announcements enters yet another interface into the touch OS pantheon, which already includes iOS, Android and all its flavors, and Windows Phone 7. There are others for sure, but these main flavors will surely comprise the bulk of the installed base over the next few years.
As tablets continue to replace desktops and laptops, most users will most certainly learn how touch interfaces work from one of these OSes.
The question that’s been bugging me for a while is how easily people will transition between them.
Recently, I got a case study from my lovely wife, who locked her keys, wallet, and phone in our car while she was out and about. Before you laugh, I did the very same thing once, with the engine running, and yes, it’s possible if you have a Jeep without keyless entry. So, if you’re laughing, you’re really laughing at both of us, and that’s just not nice.
Anyway, my wife is a longtime iPhone user, literally from its inception. I bought her an iPhone the day after they launched, way back in 2007. Without her phone, she had to borrow her friend’s Android phone to contact me. She couldn’t remember my phone number, a biproduct of the modern age of contacts, so she had to email me from her friend’s account.
All this means she got a crash course in Android, and I got a random email and a beautiful case study in touch interface knowledge transfer.
The results were exactly as I expected, frustration abounded. The stress of the situation actually provided a great filter for the experience, since she wasn’t relaxed and open to learning new functions. She reported that she couldn’t do basic operations on Android and essentially had to have her friend navigate the entire experience.
I cleaned it up, just a little.
Anyway, could she figure it out, given time and incentive? Of course. Is that an acceptable answer?
Consistency matters to design, but unfortunately, the rush to compete with Apple and create profitable, I mean magical, touch experiences has resulted in the death of any consistency between touch OSes and even among apps on the same OS.
And no one seems to care anymore.
Users are broken into warring factions, using the inconsistencies between interfaces as evidence that their choice is obviously better. Even when users try to jump between interfaces, they are rebuffed by steep learning curves and frustration, the archenemies of usability.
Competition prevents the producers of the interfaces from following conventions, citing their new features as revolutionary and differentiating. Couple this with the strong economic incentive to lock customers and developers into their platform.
No incentive exists for consistency.
The reason design conventions exist at all is to provides users with affordances between applications; conventions exist because technology didn’t used to be a requirement. It was optional.
Because using software was optional, we formed conventions to care for the users, to invite them to use new software and show them how easy it was.
Not anymore. Technology is a requirement, so figure out how to use it. No more invitations. Figure it out or GTFO.
Empathy used to be a design value, but many modern developers do not write software for others. You’d think this would create strong empathy, and it can, but only to the point where the developer shares requirements with the user. Beyond that is uncharted territory for many modern developers, who just don’t care.
It’s all one giant cluster that we’ve created ourselves.
I have no pithy wisdom to share, no silver bullet ideas that would fix this problem.
It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.
Find the comments.