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OSX, Clear, and the Trajectory of Interaction Design

By: Michael Faber

Lots of news out there today in the tech world about the out-of-nowhere announcement from Apple that Mountain Lion is coming this summer.  After we all collectively sighed and chuckled and realized, damn, we should have seen that coming, we can move on to more interesting matters like what it means for the future of interaction design.

Obviously Apple is on a trajectory to merge the conventions of iOS (and now the apps) into OS X.  It wouldn’t surprise me that after maybe a few more iterations of OSX, that the next major (ie OS 11) upgrade will be unifying across all Mac platforms – desktop and mobile.

That’s kinda terrifying, to be honest.  We all know that the touch and point stuff that happens on an iPhone or an iPad is not directly translatable to a computer, and the reason is pretty simple.  It’s tiring to hold an arm up and touch the screen (sorry, Minority Report, it ain’t happening).  That’s why I think this article on Gizmodo is really quite smart and forward-thinking.  Forget all the graphics upgrades, solid state drives, and better screens and everything, the real kicker for the next generation of Macs will be full width integrated trackpads along the bottom of a keyboard in laptops and external keyboards.  Having a large trackpad area will not only allow for more natural multitouch interactivity with the screen, but it keeps your hands and arms where they are used to being (and where they belong).

This will allow Apple to bring all the best of the multitouch interface into the desktop world.  And they’re slowly and not-so-secretly teaching us how to do this as well.  First, they added two-finger scrolling, which most of us can’t live without at this point.  Then they got rid of the button on the trackpad on laptops, giving your fingers a bit more room to dance and do fancy 3-finger gestures like back and forward web-browsing, or invoking exposé. Then they let us add a trackpad to our desktop machines with an even bigger surface, and clearly as an obvious line-stepper into the mouse’s turf.  It’s only a matter of time before the trackpad continues to grow, while 4-finger, 5-finger, and even tw0-handed gestures get slowly added to our repertoire right under our noses.

While all of this is great, I think progress in the human-computer interface is ripe for capital I Innovation.  What Apple is doing with multitouch, and the trackpad is evolutionary (at least at this point).  My biggest problem with this is explained thoroughly in this post by Bret Victor (and I wrote a bit about that here).  To summarize the issue – it’s still just the tip of a finger touching a glass or metal surface.  There’s so much untapped potential for using not only the rest of our hands, but other senses in interaction design that finger-on-surface can’t deal with.  And to be frank, not all of this is really Apple’s responsibility, but they seem to be the only company willing to lead on a such a grand scale in this area (and they do a damn good job doing it), that maybe it is up to them to continue to disrupt other industries (or at least jumpstart their photocopiers, as they say).

Let’s use things like weight, scale, color, location, tactile and aural response, and visual awareness.  Get rid of the skeuomorphism and create new conventions for interface design that take advantage of the rest of our senses (or at least more than 2 fingers).  I think as designers we are obligated to ask / answer these questions and drive the technology.  There’s no point in putting a small graphic of the remaining pages in an e-book along the side of the screen if it gives you no indication of how many pages are left in your book.  Just look at what Clear app is doing.  No buttons to be found.  Buttons are for mice.  Smart audio and color cues, and taking advantage of the things Apple has taught us about how to use multi-touch gestures.  There’s a reason why that has turned so many heads this week – because it’s challenging our notions of how design interfaces drive interaction.

I know this doesn’t exactly offer any solutions, but at least something to chew on for a bit.  Thoughts?


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