July 11, 2019

How will immersive new media push the evolution of usability?

Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (1994) remain relevant today even for UI in modern software, websites, apps and even video games. We’re no stranger to these guidelines being bent or broken for artistic or commercial merit, but how will the playing field change when the interfaces they were designed for eventually evolve to become us?

The Original Heuristics

For reference, heuristics are “any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical, or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.” These can also be used to decrease the cognitive load on a person to speed decision-making. Here is a brief summary of Nielsen’s original 10:

  • Visibility of system status: The system gives users feedback about what is going on.
  • Match between system and the real world: The system favors language and concepts familiar to the user and real-world conventions.
  • User control and freedom: Users have the freedom to undo or exit functions executed by mistake.
  • Consistency and standards: No guesswork as to whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.
  • Error prevention: Careful design that eliminates the potential for errors.
  • Recognition rather than recall: Visuals are used extensively and instructions accessible to minimize the user’s memory load.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use: Expert users can access accelerators, unseen to novices, that speed up interaction.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design: Information provided is inconspicuous, relevant and efficient.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Errors identified in plain language (no codes), and constructive solutions are offered.
  • Help and documentation: Easy to search, focused on completing the user’s task and of appropriate length.

The spectrum of immersiveness and user agency

While the above guidelines make perfect sense, developers have always interpreted or flouted them for commercial, artistic or other intentions in social media, video games, apps, websites or any other kind of interactive software.

For one, some games such as Wild West-themed Red Dead Redemption 2 offer the option of switching off the heads-up display (HUD) that includes the map, meaning players have to rely on landmarks and directions from non-player characters to find their way (just like we used to).

If you’ve mistakenly clicked into a 3rd party site when simply trying to clear a pop-up ad, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten a taste of Dark UX to use a less colorful term. Some are not as downright manipulative to squeeze that one-time action out of you, but rather are a combination of more subtle interface design decisions meant to loosen our purse strings or keep us engaged with—or dependent on—a given digital medium.

Depending on the creator’s intentions, we the users will find ourselves falling somewhere on a spectrum with every digital medium we experience, where total unconscious immersion lies at one end and complete freedom and control at the other.

Tomorrow’s interfaces and the blurring of reality

As we get closer to developing better and better media forms that involve the user on a deeper level, many of the above heuristics may become locked to certain benchmarks and inseparably merged as part of a new standard for user experience: total immersion.

Nielsen’s original usability heuristics were created in 1994 and certainly remain relevant beyond the software they were intended for originally. Today, the boundaries between software, apps and websites are constantly being blurred depending on how and how much the user can interact with them. Even though we’ve come a long way from a time when the only input devices were mouse and keyboard, and we’re still busy exploring the potential of capacitive surfaces beyond the touch screen, the interface and user remain separated at the hands.

But because the 10 heuristics have always favored the user anyway—their end goal is to reduce cognitive load and ease decision making—the interface will eventually do away with separate peripherals and the user will become the input device.

When eye movements, speech, and even thought become an industry standard input for interfaces, we’re going to reach a point where the usability of all apps, sites and software is going to be evaluated on the by-then increased user expectations (for example “the program responds quickly to my gestures in the air, moves the displayed area with my eye movements or pauses when my mind is focused elsewhere.”)

By this time, anything that delays this or responds in a non-intuitive way will effectively “break” the immersion, violating several heuristics in one fell swoop and thus affect a program’s usability—what we’d currently call “buggy” or laggy controls.

Art and industry

Regardless of whether an app, program, game or simulation is for commercial or artistic purposes, a creator’s goal is always strong user engagement whether that be evaluated in how often they revisit it or how long they spend with it. Just as long-form journalism, feature length films and perhaps eventually even podcasts decline in popularity, creators need to keep asking themselves how their respective arts and industries might change as attention spans shift and shrink while the path of least resistance shortens.

When VR and other yet to be defined new mediums reach a high enough standard to become widespread and normalized in our everyday lives (we’re getting there), we will have to figure out how we address the divide between this world and the creator’s. Photographer, artist and VR filmmaker Julia Leeb uses VR to so that her audiences can experience the terror of war in an uncomfortable but physically safe manner. What are the implications of future artists that remove user agency to execute their visions? How will industry standards evolve to address Dark UX in commercial VR apps? Should we establish upper limits—a “no go” zone—for how immersive something can be? Or will we simply treat new mediums as just another field of rabbit holes, each of which we impressionable humans can get lost in, as we have tended to do?

You might say we’ve watched one episode of Black Mirror too many, but it never hurts to be mindful of how we use the new things we create, but also how we can be used by them in return.

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