21st century GUI

Last week I had lunch with Dave Aron, a research director at Gartner.

Aron believes that PC users are handicapped by the legacy of Windows. The designers of the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone had the good fortune of being able to create their user interfaces from scratch, to develop GUIs that appear to ooze innovation.

But the poor old PC is stuck with a clunky UI, called Windows. Now I’m no expert in human computer interfaces – just a humble user – but it seems that the way we use a PC is closely linked to our culture. Along with the obvious language and character set differences, people from different cultures will use different metaphors in the way they communicate and interact with other people from the same culture.

I came across a fascinating article on ZucshLogin which looks at the common help desk calls tech support staff get. User interface designers cannot assume the user will think in the same way as them. Their assumptions will be based on past experience and their cultural experiences.

Today’s desktop GUI comes from large US-based software development. Are they exporting US culture to the rest of the world in the design of the UI? How annoying is it when software defaults to US English and, when you have to enter a postal address, you inevitably have to scroll all the way down to “U” to select UK (and we don’t have zip codes or states here; postcode and county would be nice).

When there is no real legacy with the US, as in the GUI of mobile phones, designers are free to experiment. The design will be influenced by the cultural influences of the designers. Just look at the differences between Nokia and Samsung for instance.

Perhaps it is time for a radical change. What should we look for in a 21st century user interface?

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The need for a different UI experience has guided my computer use for a long time. Intrigued and enthused by the possibilities of different window managers in Linux, I have applied that customisation and choice to my Windows experience.

When I am likely to use only one or two programs in a session, particularly a memory hungry application like Gimp, I use a lightweight window manager in Linux which won't hog resources. That option isn't always available in Windows but I rarely use the Windows explorer shell - it keeps freezing on me for some reason. I use Aston, Talisman Desktop, SharpE or Blackbox for Windows depending on my mood. Aston allows me to customise my menus and hide them in drawer-like tabs that open or close on demand. Talisman, SharpE and Blackbox have virtual desktops (just like Linux) that allow me to work with an extended screen architecture. Aston and Talisman are eye-candy heaven; SharpE and Blackbox are minimalist, Zen-like and sparsely beautiful.

I feel that the success of future GUIs does not depend on what some corporate designers decide we should have. It depends on how customisable GUIs will be and how much the user can decide to include or exclude from their GUI experience, not as a one time decision, but as an adaptable set of choices made and changed at random. When everybody has their own individually-designed GUI that meets their specific needs at a specific time, the user interface will become an art form.

Good point Graham. Customisable GUIs would keep us all happy. I haven't come across these GUis before but after reading your message I checked the Talisman website last night and it looks really neat.