User Interface Innovations

Design is a critical component to the success of long-term innovative companies. Design and the design process helps inform our designers and developers about the products they are building. It is possible to build great technology companies without design, however the companies that define a market and are sustained innovators rely on design to guide their product direction. This can be seen from earlier examples of innovative companies, including IDEO, Apple and Sony, all rely on great design to build the next generation of great products.

Where do the opportunities exist?

There are a number of venture opportunities that exist based on design innovations.

Visualization Toolkits

We are beginning to see the development of visualization toolkits that enable developers to use services to visualize and analyze information and navigation. Design research into unique interactions and visualizations could inform the creation of future development and navigation tools as a platform.


  • Visual Insights – visualization, performance management and analytics software spin out from Bell Labs/Lucent
  • Inxight Software – visualization toolkit company spin out from XeroxPARC
  • ThinkMap – hyperbolic navigation tools spin out from Plumb Design
  • The Brain – information management and visualization tools
  • Jazz – a zooming user interface toolkik developed in Jazz by Ben Bederson at the HCIL, Universtity of Maryland (HCIL has a large visulization group working on both novel visualizations and their applications)

Cross Device User Interface Toolkits

The number of devices available to consumers for use in the computing environment has increased in the past couple of years. Computing platforms and devices are designed to support the interaction between one user and one computer. There is a need to redefine the application development tools, application stack and event heaps to allow multiple users to access multiple devices. Understand the interaction and collaboration between users and their devices will inform both the software infrastructure needed to integrate multiple devices but also the user interface toolkit needed to build these collaborative platforms.


  • Pebbles Project – a research project at CMU investigating the use of multiple handhelds in collaboration with a personal computer
  • Interactive Workspaces – a research project at Stanford investigating software architectures for immersive work environments
  • XWT – a cross-platform toolkit that "projects user interfaces" anywhere on the Internet
  • Mozilla XP Toolkit (XUL) – cross-platform toolkit to build user interfaces using a markup language


Email is still the dominant application of the Internet generation. As we look forward, communication and collaboration are technologies that enable new types of human collaboration. New collaboration and communication technologies typically do not replace existing collaboration methods, they often augment the existing communication capabilities. Examples of these phenomena include email not replacing the telephone, but becoming another communication channel. ICQ and instant messaging does not replace email but adds another communication channel. Corporations can continue to use design methodologies to study the work practices and organization changes of communication technologies and build new ventures and platforms around fostering new kinds of human network communication.


  • Zaplet, Inc. – Zaplet began as a interface exploration of HTML Mail could change the user interaction with a standard mail client
  • Groove Networks – Groove is Ray Ozzie, the founder of Lotus Notes, new venture to develop an infrastructure for peer-to-peer collaborative applications
  • Netscape – Netscape was the first commercial application of the Mosaic browser used to enable research scientists to collaborate using a graphical user interface

Novel Input Devices

Input devices have tremendous potential to alter the way that people interact with computers. One of the largest areas for improvement to the input device has come in the design of mobile computing systems, i.e., PDAs, handhelds, cellphones. To increase the functionality and improve the usability, mobile device designers have created new techniques for interaction. The design of gaming control pads has also pushed the limits on input device design.


  • Danger, Inc.’s Hiptop – Danger has created a next generation mobile device that converges the mobile phone, personal information management, web browsing and instant messaging
  • Xbox – Microsoft’s Xbox, while not the first, it does have some interesting input devices. There is the Controller S, the MC2 Racing Wheel, the Freestyler Board by Thrustmaster
  • Sega Dreamcast – The Dreamcast had 2 of my favorite input devices: the InterAct Fishing Rod; and the maracas controller for Samba de Amigo
  • FingerWorks TouchStream Keyboards – The Fingerworks keyboard offers zero force keys and a gesture sensitive surface for chording.
  • Digit Wireless Fasttap keypad – Fasttap is a unique keypad that places all 26 letters of the English alphabet on the keypad 10 digits and a more than 6 other useful keys./li>

Human needs drive innovation

We can look at Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical human needs to see the successes of innovation. Maslow’s theory hypothesized that there are varying levels of needs. The higher level needs are dependent on the satisfaction of the lower level needs. We can review current innovations based on the stage of development of society and how the specific innovation addresses the underlying human needs.


Physiological needs include oxygen, water, relatively constant body temperature, etc. Significant developments to meet the physiological needs in Western culture have taken place in the last 50 years. These development include the air conditioner, the refrigerator, water purification and treatment. These innovations are adopted quickly by society and we often forget about their value to our lives. Significant opportunities exist for the development of environmentally responsible applications of these technologies.


Security/Safety needs include stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear and anxiety, law and order. Many of these innovations are in changes to public policy and local government. The development of security tools including biometrics, encryption and personal defense. Security innovations exist in both the physical and virtual worlds. Physical world safety innovations include small arms (though the distribution and use of small arms has fuelled political instabilities and made regions of the world very unsafe—see Scientific American for more details). Virtual innovations include encryption technologies (SSL, public key cryptography, PGP, etc.), firewalls to keep out intruders, and credit card fraud detectors (HNC’s Falcon Fraud Management System).


Social needs include a feeling of belongingness, love, and the development of community. Many technologies have focused on the creation of communities and the development of relationships. Communications platforms explode on to the public scene after the lower level needs have been met. Examples including the telephone, the Internet, and even blogging software. All of these technologies foster the human social needs, but their success happens only after the physiological and safety needs have been met. In the case of telecommunications the physiological needs are the network itself, i.e., I need to be able to reach someone that matters to me, and after the technology is relatively safe to use.


Ego/Esteem needs include a desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery, competence, independence, freedom, status, recognition, attention, importance and appreciation. The development of recently changed weblog lists (, and the creation of online publications are services that promote respect and the esteem from others. The success of the Thunder Lizard conferences and the creation of web celebrities (Business 2.0’s Gurus, the Wired 52, O’Reilly Network Weblogs are one result of satisfying the Ego/Esteem needs.


Self-actualization was described by Maslow as “an ongoing process”. Self-actualized individuals are realistic, spontaneous, focused on problems outside of themselves, autonomous, creative among other things. I am not sure that there are self-actualization innovations. Many people may take other innovations and use them to become self-actualized.

“Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. ”—Abraham Maslow.

Part Programmer, Part Archaeologist

I just finished re-reading Vernon Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky where one of the protagonist’s, Pham Neuwen, is described as a Programmer Archaeologist. His experience and expertise is the underlying code and low-level functions hidden in the code beneath the levels of documentation. I started thinking about the role that history play with usability and information architecture.

Techniques for Observation
Contextual Inquiry is among the leader for mind-share in ethnographic techniques used by designers to build new software products. There are other methodologies that are based in anthropology, ethnography and archaeology including diary studies, customer interviews, . All of these are tools for understanding how people interact with technology in context, i.e., how people use and interact with tools and technology in the real-world. By observing real-world usage, designers can very quickly understand where problems exist and where to focus their efforts on designing change.

Searching for Patterns describes archaeology as “The systematic study of past human life and culture by recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools and pottery.”
This systematic study of human lives leads to the identification and abstraction of patterns. These patterns exist for user interfaces, whether wizard interfaces or progress bars. By understanding when and where these patterns should be used we can build better tools.

Related Links

Tom Erickson’s Interaction Patterns page
Jan Borcher’s HCI Patterns book
Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Patterns

Search is goal directed

Buying tickets to an event online can be a very painful experience.

I recently bought tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and Mamma Mia. I was frustrated because while I wanted the very best seats available for both performances, the tools forced me to search for tickets by date.

The ticketing sites assumed that the most important ticket selection criteria is date. This is probably true of a large percentage of their target market. I live close to the theatre district and do not have to travel to see these shows, so the date of the performance is a less important selection criteria. By identifying the goals of customers, companies can better understand purpose of their customers. What are the goals for customers of an online ticketing service?

  • Get the best seats for a specific date
  • Get the best seats for any date
  • Get the best seats for a fixed price
  • Get the best seats for a date range

This presents a key set of criteria that can be used in the search for tickets including: date; price; seat location; date range; number of seats together and others. I should be able to start my search using any one of these criteria. For example, I want 4 tickets for the first 4 rows of the center balcony, this is not possible using the current interface. Now I have to guess if those seats will be available on a Saturday in November.

Rogers Digital Cable

The price for my Rogers cable connection finally jumped (all of the discounts and introductory offers finally expired) to where the difference between my good old cable and digital cable was negligible. I used to be a Time Warner Digital Cable subscriber, though I have been reluctant to adopt the Rogers Digital Cable service. I am an early adopter, but I have held back on Rogers Digital Cable for more than 12 months. Here are some of my reasons:

  • Price
    This is always a stumbling block of new technology adoption. But until last month my cable bill was 35% less with regular analog cable. With a recent raise in rates it is negligibly different than the price of digital cable. Price was the main reason that I did not upgrade to digital cable, basically I was not willing to pay $30-40/month for the additional digital specialty channels.
  • Features
    Great, I now get over 200 channels. Why is it when I sit down to watch TV there is still very little on. I miss the features and benefits of a Personal Video Recorder. I want my Tivo. Why doesn’t Canada have Tivo yet? Great, I get more channels, but why not improve how I watch TV now.
  • Convenience
    Digital cable requires that I change my current home theatre. I have to get in behind the theatre console and reconfigure the mess of wires. When will consumer electronics companies realize that I will trade all of this for no-nonsense solution. This inconvenience far out weighted the benefits of more channels.

Rogers Digital Cable is a great example of a company not understanding what their customer needs are and misinterpreting television watching behaviour. Rogers must have analysts/business consultants/marketing analysts that review all of the vast stores of customer data and analytics but they still don’t fundamental understand how or why I watch TV. Until they do, they are doomed to add more features that I will adopt after the price has been reduced.

Linux needs to be easier


Linus Torvalds wants to make Linux more usable. Well according to an article on CNET. This should spark an interesting debate inside of the Linux community, as part of the community is bound to share the view held by Jeremy Allison, leader of the open-source Samba project, that the kernel is the most important thing to Linux. This is a radical shift in thinking for much of the development community. It requires the shift in development from improving the technology, to developing technology that enables people to accomplish tasks.

Recently at the San Jose Technology museum celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC, Mitch Kapor, founder of the EFF and Lotus, pointed out “that despite an installed base of 500 million PCs worldwide, usability was a major block to wider adoption of technology; he warned that if the PC doesn’t get easier to use, a newer, simpler technology could replace it.” It reassures me that even the leaders of the technology industry realize that the PC is a communications platform, and we should attempt to make it usable. However I often wonder if Mitch is the lone business man in this crusade.

Five Good Ideas and Five Unsuccesful Products

CIO has a great article about 5 products:

  1. the Magnavox Odessey (before my time)
  2. the Xerox Star (saw one at CHI’98 in LA)
  3. the Commodore Amiga (I think there is one in my basement)
  4. the Apple Newton (sold it a couple of years ago)
  5. and the Gateway Destination (ahh, I’m really more of a Mac person)

The article talks about how great technologies and products are not always successes. I think I owned a number of the innovations, and it is amazing to realize how many great products were failures.

Workplace Culture for Innovation and Creativity

Fast Company interviews Andrew Ross, a NYU Professor, who is trying to chronicle the “the industrialization of bohemia”. It is an interesting look at how work has changed by incorporating values that are traditionally associated with artisans and craftspeople.

One of interesting observations that Ross makes is that “play is critical”. Creativity is spontaneous and can occur during any situation. Companies like IDEO have recognized the need for creativity, spontenaity and play in the work place. Tom Kelley documents IDEO’s approach to creativity and innovation in “The Art of Innovation”.

User Interface Innovations

In November 1999, MIT’s Technology Review published an article about the ten most important interfaces between man and technology.

  1. Loudspeaker
  2. Touch-Tone Telephone
  3. Steering Wheel
  4. Magnetic-Stripe Card
  5. Traffic Light
  6. Remote Control
  7. Cathode Ray Tube
  8. Liquid Crystal Display
  9. Mouse/Graphical User Interface
  10. Barcode Scanner

This is an interesting collection of some of the most important human-machine interfaces. The interfaces range from input devices, i.e., the steering wheel and the mouse, to output devices, i.e., CRTs and LCDs. There are a number of technologies that are so ubquitious that I was not thinking of them as human-machine interfaces. The Touch-Tone Telephone is an interesting example. The article talks about AT&T’s research into keypad layout and design. It reminded me that telephone numbers are a result of the system, not a human construct. Things change.

Javascript alternative: curl had an interesting story this morning about a new programming language called curl. curl is a Cambridge, MA startup that has spunout from the MIT Computer Science Laboratory. They have raised $50 Million in venture funding, and boast Tim Berners-Lee as a founder and now advisor. has a great story about how curl is different than HTML, Javascript, Java Applets. Unlike the current methods of transferring files for display on the Internet, curl servers send source code to a browser plugin, that then compiles the code on the users machine. Current systems compile the code on the server, and send this to the client to be rendered. curl should allow for the development of a richer user experience, than HTML and Javascript. curl should also provide a better development and maintenance experience than tools like Flash (don’t get me wrong Flash is a great tool, but it can be horrible to maintain code in Flash).

You can download the curl plugin at the curl corporate site and check out the interesting demonstrations that they have built.