Wired-Superhuman Interaction Design

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Superhuman Interaction Design

Information is inherently stressful, and usually it overpowers people. A great interface makes people feel stronger than the interface and makes them feel great. The best technologies should give people superpowers. It should make them comfortable with the giant flow of information.

Superhuman interaction design describes the process of designing interfaces to amplify human intellect, joy, and power to interact with information. Superhuman interfaces are successful because they provide not only a mentally joyful experience, but a physiologically joyful one as well. In order for an interface to be considered superhuman, it should have the following characteristics:

  • Make the user feel physiologically empowered. Present information in a way that makes the user feel more powerful than the information, not overwhelmed.
  • Make the user feel exhilarated when using the interface, as if they had suddenly been given the power to see great distances or lift giant buildings and they are able to do this because you’ve made them an excellent interface that empowers them instead of frightens them and makes them run away from data.
  • Minimize visual skeuomorphic cues and reduce the interaction to action ratio. Flipboard reduces the page curl to a centralized pivot, and allows a page to be turned with the touch of a finger.
  • Consistent, in that each interface element is part of the same theme and idea, so that the user is not jarred or stunned with each transition.
  • Intuitive, in that it requires minimal coginitive power to navigate or learn were to go.

But a superhuman interface is also subjective, because for some a good example of a superhuman interface is Photoshop, and for others it might be Facebook. Facebook, for instance, brings bite-size status updates from one's entire contact group into easy reach.

The problem is that many new programs, especially those on new interfaces, try to implement elements of the physical world into them instead of using the properties of the new device to their advantage. The method of making a digital book have page turns and worn paper that look like an actual book is an example of a skeuomorph.

What is a Skeuomorph?

   “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.

Basalla, George (1988). The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 107. ISBN 0-521-29681-1.

   “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original”.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1971. Volume II, page 4064.

There is one place in particular where skeuomorphs aggravate me the most. A book in real life takes some effort to hold, and some effort to flip a page. Many designers keep this effort around when they translate a book into a digital format. This results in the following annoying user interface experiences. Have you ever tried one of these badly designed pager turners out? When you try to flip the page, you have to physically press down on it and drag it over to the other side of the screen! And this is supposed to help people relax and enjoy reading on a digital device! Not if I have anything to do with it.

The Superhuman Interface

The iPad app Flipboard represents an important turning point in Skeuomorphic interaction design. It takes the best parts of the page turn, reduces them by half (the page pivots from the middle, not the side) and presents the reader with more information instantly. It is seamless. It is empowering. And because of that, it is relaxing.

JumpCut for Mac is an example of a superhuman interface in that it extends one's short term memory into a digital data store. Whenever you copy something it copies it into a giant invisible clipboard. The app allows one to store up to 50 clipboard objects and access them with a tiny set of keyboard shortcuts. The interface is invisible until one needs it. It makes me feel like my short term memory is suddenly 50 memories long, instead of just 4 or 5. It's a giant relief, and has changed my ability to move comfortably about the digital world.

Do you have an example of an interface that has made you feel powerful instead of frustrated? Why did it make you feel that way? What did it look like, and what was it like?