It’s not too late

The wrong path?

Digital user interfaces began with a keyboard and a character-based screen. There were no virtual objects presented, at best a question appeared on the screen and you typed in data.  Technology advanced to the GUI (Graphical User Interface) with a mouse to complement the keyboard – this is where we are today and have been for 30 years, though now with our fingers acting as a virtual mouse on our smartphones.  This places us in a virtual world, where we have to leap from a physical need to a virtual one, the leap being offered & translated by designers whose situated actions [1] have forced their beliefs on us.  All this can generate misunderstandings and confusion so perhaps we need to go back to an earlier time.


The Tangible User Interface

Before digital devices, the tools we used were mechanical or electrical.  These were simple objects with no virtuality and were simple to operate, e.g. to make it louder you rotated the control labelled “volume”.  Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) exist so we can return to these ways.  Here are some examples:

Use your drinks bottle to adjust the volume [2],

Use blocks to build a video [3],

Buy some knobs and stick them on your iPad,

Look at the MacBook Pro Touch Bar.  This is half-way between a GUI and a TUI where a slider or button is replaced by an interactive image that you can touch,


The problem is . . .

An old radio had limited functions so needed a just few controls.  Today’s devices have seemingly limitless functions which makes it difficult to add a TUI.

This demands far more research, but we must not get fixated on any particular path as the GUI and TUI are not the only options.  We have Touchless User Interfaces (think “Minority Report“), Augmented Reality (think Google Glasses), Virtual Reality and many more.  All these interfaces are perhaps attempting to travel towards a natural user interface (NUI) [4] but have taken different paths.  A NUI is where a novice transitions to become an expert with the minimum of stress and effort.  NUIs are ‘natural’ in how they feel to the person experiencing it, rather than the interface attempting to emulate any ‘natural’ characteristic.

How this research is performed is critical.  The design demands a participatory infrastructure else we will fall back to the designers’ situated actions being forced onto the user.  Indeed, we need to change how we work with users – not to ignore them, not to rename them [5] but to subsume them into the design process with the aim that the interface vanishes from view [6].

Perhaps the ultimate NUI will be a think-and-it-happens interface, with early forms of the technology already on sale.  Of course, the next problem will then be a wave of protest as the Facebooks, the Googles, the governments all have access to our thoughts – now that is something to be anxious about.



  1. Lucy A. Suchman. 2007. Human-machine reconfigurations: Plans and situated actions. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Markus Funk, Oliver Korn, and Albrecht Schmidt. 2014. An augmented workplace for enabling user-defined tangibles. Proceedings of the extended abstracts of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems – CHI EA ’14: 1285–1290.
  3. B. Ullmer and H. Ishii. 2000. Emerging frameworks for tangible user interfaces. IBM Systems Journal 39, 3.4: 915–931.
  4. Wigdor D, Wixon D. Brave NUI world: designing natural user interfaces for touch and gesture. Elsevier; 2011 Apr 5.
  5. Paul Dourish and Scott D Mainwaring. 2012. Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse. 133–142.
  6. Mark Weiser. 1991. The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American 265, 94–104.

Author: Peter Glick

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