What are user interfaces – and why are they important?

A door handle, a light switch and a shower faucet are examples of user interfaces. A human being in the need of access, of light or of a shower, for example, manipulates the user interface) to change the state of some other thing – the system behind the user interface: a wall with an opening, an electrical power outlet, a device in the bathroom that pours water etc. Those everyday objects are designed to do some thing – to change something from one state into another.  Therefore, they have user interfaces that must be manipulated in order to get the desired results.

User interfaces determine the limits for our communications with each other, with ourselves and with the machines and objects surrounding us. The interfaces decide how quickly, safely, efficiently and easily we can perform and do our work, explore the world and pass time. They decide the very output of the machines and go a long way towards determining the satisfaction we get from using them.

In the information society, the user interfaces are inseparable parts of peoples’ lives; machinery, devices and apparatuses surround modern man. By definition, a user interface consists of all the parts or features of apparatuses or machines that users interact with. Seen from the user’s perspective, the user interface is what he or she experiences in meeting with the machine. It includes something the user can see, touch, hear or feel in other ways. The user interface stipulates how the user influences the machine and how the machine influences the user.

For example, the user interface on a wristwatch is the small dial face or display with possible buttons. If the watch plays one or more sounds, these are also part of the user interface – due to the fact that they affect the user’s senses and give signals that are potentially meaningful to the user.

The user interface of a computer consists of many items. A mouse and a keyboard enable the user to give input to the machine.  The monitor allows the user to see the information whether entered by the user or presented by the computer.

To the ordinary user, the user interface is confined to the software and hardware such as the monitor, the keyboard and the mouse (or other less common peripherals such as a joystick, a set of speakers or a microphone) – all items inside the computer (except for the software) are not relevant to the ordinary user’s tasks.

To IT support or an electrician however, the inner items of the computer make up the user interface. These people need to look into the computer, install something in it or mend it. Thus the user’s interface depends on who the user is and on which tasks the user wants or needs to perform. This blog does not focus on hardware (with engineers as the target group) or programming languages (with developers as the target group) but it deals with interfaces facing the end users.

End users may meet the company or organisation through a variety of user interfaces including the web; a corporate web site, a link or a banner on the web site of another company e.g. a partner, a sub contractor, a reseller, a retailer or a portal. But interfaces also include media with entirely different characteristics such as the phone e.g. a call centre, an application (for instance a mobile service) or an interactive voice response system (IVR) or through interactive TV (i-TV) e.g. an advertisement, a micro site or an application.

Thus this blog speaks to those people responsible for these interfaces.

The ideal interface is easy to learn, easy to use, consistent and adjusted to the tasks, which users want to perform. It is efficient, pleasurable and satisfactory. Real interfaces, however, often require the utmost from the user’s creativity, patience and memory. Poor computer interfaces suffer from the incorrect presumption that users are as engaged in operating and exploring a computer as the people who designed the user interface. Most users are, however, not interested in the technology itself – they just want to be able to do their work and reach their own specific objectives.

Poor user interfaces do not reflect the users’ world. On the contrary, poor user interfaces reflect the originators’ world, i.e. the sender’s, the producer’s or the developer’s world. Poor user interfaces may consequently be highly efficient and apparent to the developers, but the intended users do not understand them, cannot operate them and therefore do not get access to all the benefits of the machine or program. The sender’s, the producer’s or the developer’s efforts are then wasted.

User interfaces have for a long time been a focused field of study. Since the Industrial Revolution, machines have become more and more advanced. At the same time, machines have become increasingly important to mankind’s welfare and security. The complexity of user interfaces has developed (consider for instance the control room of a nuclear power plant or an airport control tower) and even though the persons operating the machines are highly trained, errors do occur. Some errors are neither caused by the machine – which merely performs what a person sets it to do – nor the person who carefully and meticulously does the best she can. This is not considered to be a machine malfunction.  Instead, this is a situation in which someone is using a machine correctly and still something goes wrong. The study of those situations potentially saves lives and money, justifying the studies of Man Machine Interaction (MMI).

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