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Don’t look now, but your desktop user interface dates back to the 1970s. Is it time to upgrade to the next UI?

New technologies revolutionise business. And big shifts like artificial intelligent (AI) virtual assistants and augmented reality seem to have gone from “someday” technologies, to “happening right now.”

These technologies are expected to transform business for the better. And I believe they will – far more than we realise. These new systems come with powerful new user interfaces. There’s just one problem: People don’t like new interfaces – and cling to the old, inefficient ones.

It’s not a theoretical problem. Global business has lost productivity on a galactic scale because of our failure to or inability to switch to the best interface.

This type of thing happens

Experts complain that the common QWERTY keyboard layout is inefficient, slow and problematic. (Other languages have their own arrangements that are just as inefficient, including AZERTY for French, QWERTZ for German and QZERTY for Italian.)

The 2017 MacBook and its butterfly-switch QWERTY keyboard (Roman Loyola)

The QWERTY system was invented in the 1860s for manual typewriters to solve manual typewriter problems. Even after computers came around a century later, we never convinced users to break the old keyboard habit.

Dvorak is easier and Colemak is faster. These and other QWERTY alternatives can reduce fatigue and errors and generally boost productivity. In fact, many alternatives superior to QWERTY have already emerged. But they never caught on because of old habits.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is the WIMP user interface (WIMP stands for windows, icons, menus, pointer), which was developed by Xerox PARC, popularised by the Apple Macintosh and mainstreamed by Microsoft Windows.

The first WIMP computer, called the Xerox Alto, shipped in 1973. Now, 45 years later, we’re still stuck with it.

The reasons for WIMP’s longevity are complicated. It’s partly because the most powerful machines, and how we use them, are well suited to WIMP’s desktop metaphor and peripherals. And, as with the traditional keyboard, it’s partly because old habits die hard.

At present, we have two general mainstream user interfaces: WIMP and its variants (the most common being WIMP using a touchpad instead of a mouse) and MPG, which stands for multi-touch, physics and gestures.

In general, we think of WIMP as an approach to desktop or laptop or “real” computing and MPG as an approach to mobile.

(There are exceptions to these general rules, including Microsoft’s Surface Studio device, which is a desktop MPG PC, and the Apple iPad Pro, which is optimised for a keyboard, Apple Pencil and which will support the WIMP’s “folders” metaphor with the introduction of iOS 11 later this year.)

The truth is, broadly speaking, MPG is a superior interface to WIMP. But few users want to move to MPG on the desktop, because they’ve spent their adult lives building muscle memory around keyboards, mice and trackpads.

Right now, we’re kind of wallowing in a user interface free-for-all. And because of choice in the market and the fact that all our devices are radically multi-purpose, we have that luxury.

That luxury won’t last. New technologies will force enterprises to choose between familiar-and-inefficient or new-and-ideal interfaces.

The coming challenge of voice and in-the-air gestures

Two of the biggest technologies affecting enterprises now and for the next five years are AI virtual assistants and augmented reality. The spoken word as an interface is about to explode in practical use, thanks to machine learning, which enables chat systems to figure out what you’re trying to say rather than forcing you to speak exact commands.

Any virtual assistant or chatbot application can be theoretically interacted with via typed text or spoken word.

Speech is vastly more natural, efficient, fast and hands-free. But habit compels the average employee to interact with typing, if the choice exists. So without intervention, the efficiency opportunity around chatbots and virtual assistants will be missed.

Augmented reality is another opportunity. Over the next two years, we’ll see massive development of augmented reality apps, most of which will be used on phones and tablets. Over time, however, smart glasses will take over. To a large extent, this is already happening in industrial and factory settings. What hasn’t happened yet is the inevitable, in-the-air gesture control for objects in augmented reality.

When virtual objects or texts are floating in space in front of your field of vision, the most natural and efficient interaction comes from reaching out and manipulating them directly.

The initial controls for smart glasses are likely to give users options – both the familiar interfaces (touchpads and others) and ideal (in-the-air gestures). As with speech, the in-the-air gesture interface will be ignored because of early habits around touch screen, unless special action is taken. 

How Apple breaks interface habits

Now that the confetti is being swept off the floor after Apple’s 10 year anniversary of the iPhone, it’s helpful to think back on Apple’s incredible feat of social engineering – breaking the world’s habit of using phones with physical keyboards.

Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer was famously asked in 2007 about the iPhone’s chances for success. After laughing at the outrageous US$500 price, Ballmer expressed the conventional wisdom of the time: “It doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine.”

Back then “business customers” were enamored of keyboard-centric phones from Blackberry and others, and typing on a physical keyboard was an all-day obsession.

Fast-forward to today. Blackberry is on the ropes, and all-screen phones rule the world. 

The first Apple iPhone

Apple facilitated and accelerated this necessary UI habit change by sheer force. It made an appealing phone, and had the discipline to block third-party keyboards in the early years. If you wanted to use an iPhone, you had to use the on-screen keyboard and couldn’t use a physical one.

Within a year after the iPhone shipped, the grumbling stopped and everybody got used to on-screen keyboards.

Apple is trying again with the iPad. Even as it touts the iPad Pro and iOS 11 as a good-enough combination to be “better than a computer” and ideal for professional and business use, it still deliberately blocks third-party mouse products.

Android tablets supported mice right from the start. And many iPad users want a mouse. But Apple’s long game is to transition users to multi-touch interfaces – within three years, iMacs will look a lot like Surface Studios – and so they’re using the iPad mouse block to break the mouse habit among users.

Apple demonstrates the fastest and surest way to get large numbers of people to stop using an old, outdated interface and start using a new one: By simply removing the old one and preventing people from using it.

As we enter the thrilling new world of AI virtual assistants and augmented reality, the most visionary enterprises will adopt voice and in-the-air gestures for virtual assistants and augmented reality as soon as possible. The mantra should be: Develop these resources in a way that prevents text typing interfaces for the assistants and touch interfaces for augmented reality.

Employees will complain, and the learning curve will be steep. But this necessary transition will be short lived, and the benefits for getting an entire organisation on the most elegant, natural and efficient interfaces for the new technologies will be massive.

The old WIMP PC paradigm had a good run. And it still has a few good years left.

But next-generation technologies like AI virtual assistants and augmented reality will be most powerful when their natural and new interfaces are actually used.

Make sure your organisation fully embraces the most optimised user interface for each new technology. And do it the Apple way – by removing, banning and blocking familiar but inferior alternatives.

Because when great new tech comes with a great new UI, everybody wins.