Touch Devices
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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

A User Interface Design Intervention

When someone goes to the store and buys a gallon of milk only to get home and see it’s already spoiled they would invoke the inner quality assurance employee within them and come the conclusion: Something is messed up. However when the same argument is made against a newly acquired operating system the normal response is that you don’t know what good milk really is. Milk puns aside the proof is in the pudding. New user interfaces for operating systems over the last 5 years have been misguided efforts.

Let’s rewind the clock to 2005 - a much simpler time. Most of the world was using Windows XP or earlier. Using a Mac outside of work was almost as rogue as being a Linux user. Ubuntu - the most popular desktop Linux distro - was brand new. During this time using a computer was great, but using a mobile phone was a joke. The highest end phones and PDAs at the time couldn’t accomplish the most basic of tasks due to a combination of lack of technology and ingenuity.

But let’s pause for a second. It’s late 2012 as of this writing. Did the expected user experience for a PC change at all? In 2005 what did you use your computer for? How does it differ from what you do today? Everyone I know is using computers more, but what they are accomplishing and how they are useful is fundamentally the same. People use computers to communicate and save time. What people want out of a desktop computer hasn’t changed.

Enter 2007. The iPhone is released and the consumer market has the largest recorded turtleneck orgy in Apple history. The phone has surpassed expectations and changed the mobile landscape and they quickly have all the numbers to back it up. By making such an awesome product they captured a large new audience that didn’t care about smart phones unless they could do X or Y - which the iPhone did both as well as Z.

Wait, am I saying the iPhone is bad user interface design? Absolutely not! For the use case and target audience it’s an excellent product. While the iPhone had technological advancements, most of the benefits for the user came from their ingenuity of interface design, consistency and ensuring that echoed into third party applications so the platform was less fragmented.

When the iPhone resurrected the mobile industry it simultaneously (albeit unintentionally) poisoned the desktop computer. From 2007 on most of the focus of user interface would be centered around limited real-estate, touch, and a plethora of other issues not associated with the desktop computer. All because it worked for the mobile phone and made billions, who wouldn’t try to copy/paste that from the mobile into the desktop.

Slowly the desktop industry is learning the hard way that a perfect interface that satisfies the needs of mobile and desktop does not exist. When combining the mobile and desktop interfaces you will have to make a compromise. This can be seen in the recent Windows and GNOME desktops. In order to support both mobile and desktop they have neutered their feature sets to support mobile as the lowest common denominator.

Here is a basic heartbeat of the current user interfaces for various platforms:

The sad part is a lot of great work is happening with people still working on practical problems. For example, Windows 8 forces the new touch-centric interfaces upon you but there is a great new task manager and other individual pieces. The same is true for Linux, where Valve and vendors are drastically improving it as a gaming platform.

The race to the bottom may be nearing over as the money is drying up and it’s becoming clear that the iPhone boom was a phenomena that will not repeated easily. Whichever platform begins repairing the damage and stops focusing on touch-based desktop systems will see the quickest adoption recovery.