Time Lost to User Interfaces — #NoUI

I didn’t know much of anything about design until I met Misty. I didn’t even know “interaction design” existed. I knew there were people who decided where knobs went on car dashboards, but beyond that, I had no idea there were people who actually designed the “user experience” rather than the “user interface” I was using. Now, I’ve read some books, learned to say, “Bad design!” when I can’t figure something out easily (like when the pull handle is on the wrong side of the door), listened and questioned Misty — all of which has led to my absolute expertise in this field.To Do Your Work You Sit At Your Desk And You Stare At This Tiny Little Rectangle. That frustrates me. --Bret Victor

A little over fifteen years ago, I remember reading someone saying that the time we spent waiting on computers to complete tasks used to be spent actually doing the task. This wasn’t said in a positive way. Granted, a computer outpaces a slide rule, but I think the underlying point remains (and, in fact, leads to an even more pernicious because it’s so innocuous issue): We’re spending more time waiting on our devices and machines to complete tasks (even if we are interacting with them to make them complete the task, which makes this all the more ridiculous) than actually performing the task. That is, getting things done. In fact, by the time you’ve accessed your calculator app, an old slide-rule pro could probably already have the answer.

The other issue I just thought of and noted above? With those extra moments in which we’re waiting, we aren’t actually producing or doing anything else of value. The time is merely lost. And that time adds up, as I will note further below.

A few years ago, I read Timo Arnall’s assertion that,

Interfaces are the dominant cultural form of our time.

I thought this poignant, insightful and true. Soon — like jet pilots for decades with their heads-up displays — our driving experience will be completely mediated by a user interface. It may come in the form of the ability to not pay attention and play with your devices instead. Or it may arrive with Star Trek-esque or virtually realistic (?) windows.

I found this proposition about UIs in our time and followed the thread, backwards it turned out. I came upon Golden Krishna’s efforts to promote the concept of No User Interface (or, more popularly, NoUI), which isn’t opposed to the above quote but rather seeks to undermine it by doing away with user interfaces. (In fact, it’s the other way around: The No to NoUI movement grew up in opposition to Golden’s line of thinking.)

(Misty and I had the pleasure of taking him out to dinner during last year’s SXSW at my favorite little Mexican restaurant on Cesar Chavez that Brianna and I frequented and I believe was introduced to us by Jorge, who I think is still at the Statesman.)

But, as a piece of NoUI, I want to stick with this concept of lost time.

In his book, The Best Interface is No Interface (which I highly recommend), he writes:The Best Interface is No Interface by Golden Krishna

Over the past decade, these tiny requests have been culminating into a larger and larger ball of more and more of our time, taking us farther and farther away from spending more time with our friends and family, or allowing us the free time to make our communities stronger by volunteering at places like the downtown homeless shelter.

These tasks are the result of graphical user interfaces that assume constant, demanding attention is the expected norm. They are the byproduct of screen-based thinking. First-world errands for the almighty computer and the apparent productivity software we have to manage.

That doesn’t sound like a timesaver to me.

As I read Golden’s book — which is great, by the way, and you should totally go get it right now — I do wonder about how nice (delightful, in fact) it would be to save those seconds, minutes, hours, days of my life spent waiting on a device to complete a task or fumbling with my phone or keys or what-have-you. Rest assured, that the last thing I want to wait for is the thing that’s supposed to speed up and make my life easier.

And the last thing I want to stare at as I wait is a spinning circle or hour-glass icon (how much faster would a computer be if they applied the hour-glass capacity to actually performing the task?).

I’ll end on another good quote from Golden’s book. The last sentence is important for us to remember:

Look, you’re busy. We all are. We’d all love a few extra hours to see the people we love, to enjoy life and contribute to the world. When it’s possible for computers to free us to be more productive, well, let’s take that option. Let’s have the almighty computer serve us.

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