The Place of Automation in the User Interface

There was a time that a developer could rely on users to possess a certain level of technical acumen. That’s no longer the case. Most of the people using a device containing a CPU today (I’m including PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones here) don’t know anything about how it works and they don’t care to know either. All these people know is that they really must have access to their app. (Some don’t even realize the role data plays in making the app work.) The app can perform myriad tasks—everything from keeping track of the calories they’ve eaten to maintaining the scheduled events for the day. Devices that contain CPUs have become the irreplaceable partner for many people and these devices must work without much concern on the part of the user. In short, the device must provide a superior level of automation or the user simply won’t know how to interact with it.

I was recently watching television and saw a commercial for a Weight Watchers app for mobile devices. In the commercial, a woman exclaims wonder about the new programs that Weight Watchers provides, which include this app for her mobile devices. To track her calories, she simply points her phone at the box containing whatever food she plans to eat and the app tracks the calories for her. The interesting part is that there is no data entry required. As technology continues to progress, you can expect to see more apps of this type. People really don’t want to know anything about your app, how it works, or the cool code you put into it. They want to use the app without thinking about it at all.

Of all the parts of a device that must be automated, the user interface is most important and also the most difficult to create. Users really don’t want to have to think about the interface. Their focus is on the task that the app performs for them. In fact, some e-mails I’ve received recently about my Windows 8 book have driven home the idea that the app must simply work without any thought at all. It’s because of these e-mails (and those for other books I’ve written) that I wrote the article entitled, “Designing Apps with Automation in Mind.” This article points out the essential behaviors that applications must exhibit today to be successful.

On the other side of the fence, I continue to encounter an “old world” philosophy on the part of developers that applications should pack as much as possible into a small space—users will eventually figure out the complexity of the interface provided. Unfortunately, as users become more vocal in requiring IT to meet their demands, these approaches to the user interface will lose out. The next app is a click away and if it does the job of automating the interface better, your app will lose out. Even if there isn’t another app to use, the user will simply ignore the app you’ve provided. The user will rely on an older version or simply not interact with the app if there is no older version. Many organizations have found out the hard way that attempting to force users to interact with an app is bound to fail.

The fact is, to be successful today, a developer must be part psychologist, part graphics artist, and part programming genius. Creating an acceptable interface is no longer good enough, especially when people want to access the same app from more than one device. The interface must be simple, must work well, and must automate as much of the input as possible for the user or it simply won’t succeed. Let me know your thoughts about user interface automation at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.