This article was written by Maurice McGinley. He leads the design team at AVG Innovation Labs to make new technologies useful and relevant in the real world. Maurice is fascinated by how culture and technology shape each other.
My Friends! Raise your eyes from your smartphones and behold Reality! Otherwise, Reality—perhaps in the form of a truck—might clip you as you step off the curb and land you on a hospital operating table, a slab of meat with a busted screen.
Sooner or later, Reality will catch up with smartphones and reveal their fundamental faults. I’m betting it will be sooner.
Back when the first iPhone was introduced, I was designing user interfaces for TV and home-cinema remotes. Conventional wisdom at the time held that the Holy Grail of remotes was the universal remote control—a single device to replace all the other remotes littering your coffee table. It still sounds kind of appealing.
But when the research team looked at how universal remotes were actually used by humans in the wild (i.e., actual users in their actual living rooms), we found they didn’t deliver. Single-device remotes were simply better, because they didn’t distract from your movie.
You can pick up a dedicated DVD remote and press the subtitle button almost without thinking. In contrast, universal remotes tear your attention away from the screen. If you need subtitles for the latest action flick out of Hong Kong, you must first navigate to “disc mode” and then find whatever button controls the subtitles. In the process, you’ve probably missed the $10 million fight scene all your friends will be talking about tomorrow.
Based on these observations, the research team established a design rule for home-cinema user interfaces: people should be able to control the system without looking down at the remote control. This became known as the Heads Up rule.
Heads Up is a versatile design principle. Whether designed for people watching a car chase, or for people actually in a car chase, your product will be better if it helps people stay immersed in the action.
These days, as part of the team at AVG Innovation Labs talking to early adopters of the Internet of Things (IoT), I’ve started to see similarities between smartphones and universal remote controls. The smartphone is a “Heads Down” device, like the universal remote. It disengages you from the reality around you.
The most exciting advances in consumer technology today promise to pull our noses up out of our phones and point them back at reality. Apple Watch’s glances and taptic engine feed us information discretely, without interrupting our activity. Like operating room nurses handing the surgeon a scalpel, Google Now and Apple’s Proactive update to Siri give us exactly what we need, when we need it.
In my opinion, this move away from the virtual world of small screens back toward unmediated reality is a good thing because, as titillating as virtual pastimes can be, the buck will always stop in Reality. Heads Down experiences—like universal remotes, digital video recorders, and Morse code—are a transitional blip in the history of technology, merely tiding us over until less clumsy alternatives come along. In my opinion, the Heads Down experience of the smartphone has as much chance of being around in 5 years as USB drives.
Sensors and simplicity
IoT promises a giant stride forward in Heads Up computing. If you took the sensors and actuators out of your phone, multiplied and embedded them in the world around you, and put the processing and machine-learning power into the cloud, you would have… the Internet of Things. Instead of having one universal device—your smartphone—controlling your environment, you would have simple controls placed where you need them, available when you need them.
In the Heads Up world of IoT, you will control sophisticated systems while staying immersed in your current activity; for example, getting those fine steaks out of the kitchen fridge and onto the backyard barbecue. A right-twist on the doorknob as you step into the backyard with the steaks tells your house to leave the front door unlocked, because you told your guests to come straight through; no need to look at your phone. Based on the size and weight of your steaks, the barbecue chirps when it’s time to flip them over; again, no need to look away from what you’re doing.
The principle of Heads Up is a solid user interface design guideline. By extrapolation, it can also give us insight into the future of technology. In fact, Heads Up is good advice in most circumstances.
You left your phone in the kitchen. The slabs of meat received your full attention, and are now barbecued to perfection. “Siri. …Scalpel!”
Disclaimer: All opinions are those of the author and not those of AVG or Innovation Labs.