A look at interaction design beyond the touchscreen

The first iPhone marked a shift in interaction design from button to touch. With an arguable stagnation in experience design now happening, our Head of Strategy Pete asks, what’s next?

When the very first iPhone landed way back in 2007, it set off an earthquake in the Experience Design world. It marked a fundamental shift in the way in which we engage with our mobile devices – the move from a key-driven interface to a touch platform.
Looking back, the shift in interaction from button to touch was well overdue and needed not only by users, but also by design teams charged with creating new and engaging experiences. Plenty of manufacturers had previously attempted to make the shift, but there were many failed attempts to define the core technology requirements and interaction models that we now take for granted, indeed, expect within the devices in our pockets.

Quite simply, Apple tore down the barriers of entry to a touch-enabled world and constructed the norms we know and love, and the rest, as they say, is a monolithic glass slab of history.

So, why do I feel the need to take a nostalgic look way back to 2007?

Well, the answer lies in the patterns we see taking place in 2016, that we believe will ultimately drive the next evolution of interaction with our digital devices and the experiences they are able to deliver.

The most familiar pattern is the stagnation of device design and the capability and depth of experiences they are able to deliver. How many ways are there to redesign a glass fronted rectangular block? Looking at the latest models, I’d say we’re getting pretty close to running out of ideas.

To put it bluntly, the touch screen form factor is getting old

The software inside may be getting slightly faster, and the camera slightly better, but I ultimately foresee that we are rapidly approaching a plateau within the mobile device space as to how deep an experience we can deliver within a touch-enabled world.

At this point, many may point to the evolving wearables market, but in my mind this is simply adding screens and interactions to any place we believe it possible, rather than a true shift in how we engage in our digital worlds.

To look to the future, we need to remember that the head down world of digital engagement we have created isn’t a natural form of human interaction: it’s a form of interaction learned over a decade of progress, a mere speck of time in our technological evolution. It’s time for the human race to lift our heads and re-find the key driver of interaction that has been honed over millions of years: our voice.

Say it loud

In the past, I have personally discounted voice interaction as a passing gimmick, but the recent plateau in touch interaction has led me to believe that voice will genuinely drive the next fundamental shift in delivering a deeper level of screenless digital interaction, and once again, technology has finally caught up.

Reading this, you may be (rightly) unimpressed with the current level of experience offered by Siri, Cortana and Google.

However, our devices have silently learnt a new trick over the last few years. When we ask them to listen; they learn.

I vividly remember when Siri was first released as a Beta feature, with Android fanboys harshly criticising Apple for releasing a half-baked product. What I think they failed to notice is that due to the very nature of how humans speak, how we all have slightly different ways of pronunciation and forming our language, any service driven by voice will ultimately be an experiment until it gets out into the wild and listens and learns from real people in real situations.

From digital assistants to digital partners

This leads us to an interesting point in the evolution of these services – they will develop personalities as they evolve from our digital assistants to our digital partners. They will learn how to make us smile, they may make us cry, they may frustrate the hell out of us but, either way, they will be as individual as the user interacting with them as they learn every aspect of our personal needs and nuances. At this point of course I’m talking about the growth of Artificial Intelligence, which I truly believe is on the cusp of a golden age of development.

For an early example of our voice-driven screenless digital partner future, we need only look at Amazon’s Echo with Alexa, currently wowing Amazon customers in the US.

While Alexa does have a companion app, she is the first real instance of a screenless voice-led assistant being brought to the mass market, with impressive results.

Currently Alexa can control my Spotify playback, call me an Uber, add items to my shopping basket (thanks Amazon), and even early roads into voice activated home automation are being made with Philips HUE integration.

20 years from now, our children will consider touchscreen devices to be retro, and using anything other than their voice to interact with anything digital will become a novelty. On a personal level, consider this for a moment – how different would your working day be if everything could be done using natural language and voice interaction with your professional digital assistant?