Can We Design So That Design Gets Out of the Way?

When it comes down to "smart technology," we're not really looking for devices that wow us. we're looking to get things done. Current UX and UI in some smart devices is just too complicated. Seemingly effortless interface and controls actually end up being walls whenever our cultural habits and information processes slam against them.

Take computers, for instance. For people in their 16-45 range, a computer is pretty easy. You turn it on, click open a browser or a document and get to work.

But seniors are not like that, reckons Imtiaz Majeed, a seventeen year old entrepreneur, who is part of our BizSpark community group on Facebook.

He contacted me out of the blue and wanted to know what BizSpark thought about his idea for a super simple computer. Of course, I took the time and looked into it, and made sure to tell him about the next Microsoft Accelerator class that's coming up in Seattle (you can get into the program with nothing more than idea, by the way). 

Here's what Imtiaz is reckoning. He thinks that what stands in the way of elderly computer use is the fact that computers are just not simple enough. 

The simple user interface latches on to an existing operating system (Windows, MacOS) and creates an easier environment to navigate and do basic tasks. This reduces the frustration experienced by most Senior citizens. Everything is simplified. One click for email. One click for Facebook. One click to share photos and chat with family. Everything in plain sight with no distractions. Simplified for Seniors.

This reminds me of what a gentleman named Rich described to me at AOL the other day, right before the AngelHack hackathon started. He said that TV is way more confusing than what it needs to be. "Smart TVs are too smart," he said. "My mother only needs one or two buttons to use to operate a TV, why are there dozens of controllers and hundreds of buttons on these things?" His idea was to create some kind of UX or UI for smart television that took away all the guess work, and the wormholes from the Smart TV experience.

Imtiaz is thinking something similar. It's not like he wants to create a completely new computer. He just needs to create some kind of interface that reinforces new habits, but doesn't feel like it is educating the user. It should be so simple that the user forgets he or she is going through a process to use it.  

I am not a designer, so apologies if I am treading on toes, but Facebook seems like a super simple layout, and it seems, to me, to offer a very transparent version of the information that makes up our user experience. I don't have to guess at all as to what any of this information means. I don't confuse structure of the layout with my "calls to action." I don't get confused about what I am supposed to do. I know I can view, scan, comment on, LIKE, or ignore. I'm not at all bothered by what is presented to me. 

Is Imtiaz talking about a kind of OS that operates like a Facebook interface, or the Twitter interface? 

What goes into design like this? And what do we give up if we move from email to other forms of information processing and presentation?

How do you convert something that feels manual and seems machine-embedded and make it as simple as getting out a piece of paper and writing a letter? If you look at email and letter writing, they are just as simple as each other. I think the thing that stands in the way is that design makes it seem like the elderly have something to lose by giving up letter writing and going to email. I know my mother always worries about privacy. She doesn't know which emails to click on, because in the end, they all look the same. 

How do you design so that design gets out of the way? Do you work within the template for email, or the template of the computer OS? These are questions about fundamentals, but altering these fundamentals creates new realities for how people and information interact. 

Comments (2)

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