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About User Interfaces

User interfaces are the links between users and technologies. They mediate people's relationships with computers, cars, entertainment electronics, office automation, technology in public space, and handheld devices. The advent of natural-language speech interfaces such as Apple's Siri, Google's Google Assistant,'s Alexa, and Microsoft's Cortana indicates that people will engage in increasingly natural modes of interaction with machines. Generally, elegant user interfaces inspire loyalty—as in the case of Apple's iPhone. Poor UIs, however, impede technology adoption—as was the case when Google overpromised and underdelivered the benefits of its Glass head-mounted display. Lessons from user-interface successes such as multitouch tablets are driving businesses to focus increasingly on improving the quality of user experiences. Many businesses are interested in road maps for revolutionary UI technologies such as computer-dialogue systems that can sustain human-like conversations, augmented reality, and even motion holograms. Other businesses aim to improve products and services via evolutionary use of technologies such as gesture recognition, wearable devices, and head-up displays in vehicles. UIs—which people sometimes call "human–machine interfaces," "human–computer interfaces," and other names—first came into many people's awareness when graphical user interfaces emerged for Macintosh and Windows PCs in the 1980s. GUIs made it possible for people without a computer-science background to take advantage of information technology. Good usability, attractive industrial design, and innovative user-experience engineering promise to enable further breakthroughs in market development for handheld devices, connected homes, connected cars, connected workplaces, and smart spaces in public venues such as cinemas, arcades, and transportation hubs.

The discipline of user-interface engineering covers a wide array of activities, from basic research to practical web-page design. Developments entail core technologies—such as sensors, actuators, control surfaces, and display devices—as well as highly integrated systems such as cars, aircraft, consumer goods, public-information kiosks, and everything sold by electronics stores. Services, too, have user interfaces, often consisting of websites, call centers with interactive-voice-response and speech-recognition systems, interactive TV menus, and other innovations. Even a company's brand is sometimes associated with a distinctive and recognizable look and feel, as in the cases of Apple, Google, and Nintendo. A number of advanced user-interface technologies are on the horizon. Virtual-reality head-mounted displays will undergo frequent improvements in a vigorously competitive business environment; meanwhile, stakeholders are developing augmented-reality eyewear that in theory will be suitable for all-day use. But stakeholders also need to examine developments critically. For example, 3DTV sets, gesture-recognition technologies (beyond touchscreens), and brain-interface gadgets have thus far disappointed users and business developers.

Successful developments such as the iPhone and Fitbit's activity trackers illustrate the importance of innovation, detailed attention to use cases, and simple improvements to design practices to catching up with what technology already enables. As suppliers align their goals with strategic thinking about UIs, innovations in technology and design practice promise to continue transforming everyday experiences with communications, transportation, productivity, and more. Natural-language speech recognition promises to evolve from voice-based searching and control functions to conversational interfaces that resemble conversing with a human—for example, clarifying misunderstandings during back-and-forth verbal exchanges. And context-sensitive information delivered via smartphones and car-navigation systems is evolving toward augmented- and mixed-reality applications that proactively supply helpful text and graphic information in real time accompanied by synthetic and natural images of the real world. Above all, expect inventors to use diverse technologies to produce unexpected innovations, possibly by drawing on current R&D in sensor fusion, haptic interfaces, computer vision, biometrics, emotion recognition, exoskeletons, neural and bioelectric interfaces, and ways of transforming everyday activities into games.