User Interfaces as an act of communication

Even though we tend to com­ple­te­ly for­get about that, soft­ware qui­te often is a means of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on bet­ween humans. I am not refer­ring to the way the pro­duct gets used (and a lot of soft­ware nowa­days is used for direct human to human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons, be that one-to-one or one-to-many) but rather that the ent­i­re user inter­face of the app­li­ca­ti­on – is an act of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on bet­ween the deve­lo­per or deve­lo­p­ment team and the user. 

The last few years have seen tre­men­dous pro­gress on under­stan­ding what fac­tors influ­ence the expe­ri­ence for the user, and what tech­ni­ques and tools make an app­li­ca­ti­on easier and bet­ter to use. Com­pu­ters as tools have cer­tain­ly evol­ved and can be more effec­tively used. But still, the ten­den­cy is to see the app­li­ca­ti­on as some­thing detached from the peop­le who design and make it. I do not think this posi­ti­on holds true, and we do our­sel­ves a dis­ser­vice if we, as pro­du­cers of soft­ware, do not look at the ent­i­re com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons pro­cess in depth. 

Look at your own expe­ri­ence as a user of soft­ware; I’m sure you can come up with examp­les of soft­ware that tre­at you well: con­si­de­ra­te, poli­te, hel­pful, play­ful. But just as well, there’s bad examp­les I am sure you quick­ly find: obnoxious, arro­gant, dys­func­tio­n­al apps. Pro­bab­ly, the peop­le who autho­red the inter­face and their talent to inter­act with other humans are not so dif­fe­rent from their works.

User Expe­ri­ence desi­gners are using Per­so­nae as a tool alrea­dy; envi­sio­ning typi­cal users and how they would go about inter­ac­ting with the pro­duct. If you envi­si­on tho­se peop­le alrea­dy, think about how you would inter­act with them. Con­si­der yourself as sit­ting with them in a mee­ting or on a date, wan­ting to sol­ve a pro­blem tog­e­ther (and that could be the one that the app­li­ca­ti­on you are wri­ting is to sol­ve) or try­ing to have a good time with them. A good conversation. 

Con­ver­sa­ti­ons and com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons as a para­digm for user inter­faces has ano­t­her inte­res­ting impli­ca­ti­on: that of cul­tu­ral bias and presump­ti­ons. This can be ever­ything from not being able to use lan­guage-spe­ci­fic diacri­ti­cal marks in for­eign soft­ware pro­ducts and lack of inter­na­liz­a­ti­on for date and money fiel­ds to a lack of sen­si­ti­vi­ty in pro­ble­ma­tic are­as (a clas­si­cal examp­le being coun­try flags used as a selec­tor for lan­guage loca­liz­a­ti­on). The­re are cer­tain­ly other ways that we can look at this, like gen­der or eth­ni­cal presump­ti­ons in soft­ware – most stuff we inter­act with still is desi­gned by white men. 

So if we app­ly con­cepts that we know about human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons to soft­ware pro­ducts, can we gain new insights or deve­lop even bet­ter app­li­ca­ti­ons? Hope­ful­ly. We cer­tain­ly have a new tool chest avail­ab­le: a lot of rese­arch has been done on inter­per­so­nal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons and rela­ti­ons­hips. We would do well to take that to heart and app­ly it to our work. 

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