May 14, 2017

GUIs are confusing

A recent thought that hit me while having a conversation with a family member is that GUIs are confusing for the average user. For example, this family member was viewing a food recipe via Facebook on mobile and she wanted to share it to her desktop workstation which was hard wired to a printer. At least on iOS, this requires tapping the "3 dots" icon and "opening in Safari". I tapped on the "3 dots" and the family member asked me how I knew what that icon meant.

It was a great question. It made me pause for a moment. Now that I was thinking about it, there are all sorts of symbols that are fairly generic that have adapted a specific meaning over the years. Of course, not all users spend 10-14 hours staring at a screen all day and becoming comfortable using these GUIs.

At this point, the conversation shifted to the discussion of personal virtual assistants. My family member expressed her admiration for Siri and how easy it is to receive meaningful information without having to wade through multiple taps (home button, launch browser, type query, hit enter).

Lately I've been building small "toy" bots that I've connected to a personal Slack team. The first bot I built searches for torrents via a popular torrent site API based on natural language queries. Send a message such as "return the most popular [enter legal content name here]" and it returns the top 20 most seeded torrents. Selecting an item in the returned list will return a magnet link.

Another bot I call "journalbot". It's effectively an anti-social version of Twitter that only supports one user. I can add a journal entry at any time by sending "!a My super dark secret". I also have commands for searching the journal, returning the last 20 entries with timestamps, or returning a random entry. I find it's nice to look back at what I've been doing each day and get a "zoomed out" perspective on my life.

While building these bots, I've started to come more around to the idea of shifting a lot of mundane tasks to voice or text commands. In fact, text based conversations with virtual assistants may become the norm when speaking out loud near (human) others would be awkward. Of course, there will always be certain tasks that require a robust and dynamic interface (e.g. audio editing, graphic design). But perhaps personal digital assistants will begin to pry us away from our beloved GUIs for just long enough to see how intuitive some bot-based tasks can be.

TL;DR Talking to a computer is often easier than tapping a bunch of weird symbols.

© Eric Barch 2023