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Psychology of Technology: UI For U or I

The comments on David (Special) K’s thread, What’s Your UI?, have certainly been illuminating for no other reasons than the sheer number of UI’s used and the zeal that people have for them. This discussion has led me to consider what it is about UIs that attract different people to different UIs. I have identified five dimensions that seem to be relevant in choosing a UI.

The first dimension that struck me is perhaps the most obvious, namely, functionality. Different people have different needs. For some, it is a business tool to maximize efficiency through email, contacts, and calendars. For others, it is a toy for entertainment, with an emphasis on music, Internet, texting, and photos. And for still others, the smartphone is, well, a phone. Each set of needs requires a different type of UI that best satisfies those needs.

Another dimension is actually a continuum that runs from simplicity to complexity. This issue involves both set up of the UI and its use. Some people like very simple UI’s that require little to no set up and very few steps to use their smartphone. Because most people are not tech savvy, the vast majority of users of smartphones want simplicity. This observation explains much of the immense popularity of the iPhone. It’s readily understandable—you just push an icon and something happens—ready to use right out of the box. And iPhone’s competitors aren’t getting the message. Yes, Nokia, HTC, Samsung, Toshiba, and other manufacturers are making hardware that is superior to the iPhone, but they apparently haven’t figured out that it is the UI that may ultimately determine who buys what device. And it seems pretty clear that, however simplistic or inelegant the iPhone UI is (basically it’s just an app launcher), its popularity suggests that this is what most people want. 

Related to complexity is customizability. Some smartphone users like to, as Bitbucket noted, “have it their way;” just like choosing Burger King over McDonald’s (take note though that McDonald’s, like the iPhone, is most popular despite its lack of “customizability” of its food). But, because of the pervasive pressure to be unique these days a high degree of individual customization seems to be in order. UIs like SPB Mobile Shell and PointUI offer the ability to create personal configurations that can fit any users’ needs, but, as several commenters have noted, they require considerable time and effort to “tweak” them just so. I can certainly attest to the many hours I put in to get my Fuze just so.

One more dimension that seems to be of importance is efficiency which is translated into being able to launch an application in the fewest number of maneuvers. For example, on my Fuze running TF3D2, I’m able to directly access more than 15 applications through the touch screen and physical buttons with just one touch. And thanks to the iPhone Today and Manila Today Page, I can access my most popular programs in one touch and a swipe or two.

The final dimension that few if any UIs have really gotten right is the aesthetic. People just love a certain look; it makes people feel special. The challenge for UI developers is that appearance is highly personal; for every person there is a different aesthetic. Clearly, the iPhone got the hardware aesthetic right as confirmed by the legions of clone phones marching over the horizon these days. But no one has completely nailed the UI aesthetic. Perhaps the future winner of the UI wars will be the company that develops a UI that is incredibly simple, yet is also highly customizable. Just think of the time and effort put into individualized ring tones and phone cases these days. There’s little doubt that a UI that is uniquely and simply yours will be the next great fashion—and function—statement in mobile technology.

So have I missed anything here? Let me know.