Saturday, January 27, 2007

Asia and the Future of Interface Design

I’m sitting in transit at Incheon airport, chowing down on spicy shrimp enchiladas, thinking about what I’ve just seen in Asia.

A lot of folks that I talk to in the US think of Asia as their “follow-on” market, to be tackled once other “more developed” markets have been conquered. I’m not sure that’s the right kind of thinking. Asians are displaying every indication they not only want to be market leaders (and have the populations to do this), but they understand how to get there: by design.

The leadership being shown by Asian designers in the area of user interface design is palpable - and obvious on every street corner, and in every building. It doesn’t matter if it is an elevator control panel, a 3G cell phone, or a massive, border-less, “CNN Situation Room”-style video display: Asian designers continue to invent, consume and discard new interfaces at an incredible rate. Just being in Asia gives you the feeling that you’re living life at a faster pace.

One of the trends I have noticed on this trip is the move away from tactile (i.e. physical) response mechanisms to non-tactile buttons and motion-response systems, for everything from mobile phone interfaces to parking garage ticketing machines to moving walkways. The “push button” is becoming a thing of the past, and will soon become as quaint as a ringing phone. The border merely tells you where to wave your hand, or place your finger - it no longer acts to place your finger inside a mechanism with moving parts.

Moving parts. What a quaint concept. Mind you, Asian designers appear to have a grip on designs involving moving parts as well. I caught a Japanese robotics championship on NHK last night, during which, all robot contenders for the crown had to jump and skip rope, multiple times in one jump. The winner managed five skips of the rope in one jump before dropping to the floor. The reason I know this is because there was a large, real-time LED display on the side of the robot.

Before I close, let me put in a plug for the “developed countries” - fuzzy though that descriptor is. I realized a few years ago during a lecture for something entirely unrelated to instrumentation and interface design that the US is the world’s leading economy not because it jumps onto every new thing soonest, but because its business leaders understand that to maximize profit, you need to empty the inventory out of the warehouse.

So here’s my plan for Asia: make certain that our software continues to be informed by Asian design qualities. Asian design is without doubt cutting edge. And then - empty the warehouse.

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