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UI Design in Her

Spike Jonze's Her, despite its bizarrity and familiar tropes, has always been a pleasure for me to watch. Joaquin Phoenix killed his role as the reserved Theodore, not surprisingly given Phoenix's great talent.

However, this movie is from 2013 and coming upon four years of age at this point; old and out of public consciousness but not near senile enough to regain traction from critics and joe-schmoes alike. There is a reason, though, why this movie has introduced itself among my daydreams consistently for the past few years. Not chief among them was the narrative regarding Samantha; but, this essay is not going to concern itself with that aspect because it was already significant enough for me to write a couple words concerning it almost two years ago. There, I made a prediction regarding the future of Apple's Siri on the desktop, emulating the film's experience with Samantha. It looks like Apple has finally decided to do exactly that.

Enough doting on AI and its pleasant, ephemeral female voices. I want to discuss Her's design; the interest and enthusiasm for writing about this topic has kept me foaming at the mouth for weeks now. The UIs look and feel so natural, not only to Theodore and his compatriots, but also to the audience's piercing gaze. Especially striking are the various extensions of the common desktop metaphor, popularized way back in 1984 with the introduction of the Macintosh. The film's graphic designer, Geoff McFetridge, chose a distinctively handmade aesthetic for the film's interfaces. For example, take a peek at Theo's letter-authoring machine, the entire design looks almost like Grandma's craft table [1].

Twombly at his computer terminal

[1] An inviting interface provides heaps more affordance

The key to the film's UI success is best illustrated by McFetridge himself: “I like the idea that you feel the thing you're looking at, someone made that, there's some authorship to it.” This design language elevates not only the computer's aesthetic, but also its accessibility, to an entirely different level. This approach of his is one step in the right direction, towards a very haptic sense of human-computer interaction. McFetridge attempted in the movie to illustrate the potential of haptic design by redefining for the viewer what a common desktop could look like. Unfortunately, he went no further and stuck with the common visual-audio paradigm. I would've been beyond impressed if Theodore were able to more easily touch the machine, whereby his senses would find more stimulation beyond the norm.

I am reminded in this regard of Kenya Hara's senseware, which he describes in his book Designing Design as “any familiar thing that inspires our sensory perceptions.” Hara later writes that he approaches design as thinking about the human being as complete information recipient. His philosophy follows that we are an aggregate of many “brains” by which we process our information; not only our eyes and ears but our gangly appendages and sensitive skin. Powerful design must be crafted from the perspective of human-being-as-sensory-organ.

Pivoting back to Her, I was also charmed to see an aversion from the common desktop metaphor itself; instead of a background pitted with superfluous icons and a meandering task bar or application dock, the film re-imagined its software as visually all-inclusive. Of course, a basic windowing system is present which you can see in the screenshot below [2], but its purpose is small and consequently does not clutter the rest of the screen's real estate. Theodore's letter writing software is treated as a first-class citizen, granted a right to as much property as it desires.

A screenshot of the computer's desktop arrangement

[2] A more defined view of the OS's minimal windowing system

In addition, with more choices for accessibility (Samantha's voice, for example), the interface must be designed to facilitate the intended interaction. Unfortunately, since today's desktops are centered entirely around sight, it makes primarily audio navigation a bit clunky. Despite the existence of invaluable screen readers such as JAWS, the computing experience for the blind is sorely lacken. Now, take into account both the deaf and blind, then we arrive at a difficult crossroads. Though there are braille displays whom the aforementioned group could greatly benefit from, they are still pigeonholed by operating systems which behave on a visual-first paradigm. I can only dream of the computers of the far future where sight, sound, and touch (maybe smell too?) are all involved equally in creating a symbiotic human-computer interface.

This is important not only because it would expand the pool of people able to use computers, but it would also allow our minds to approach the process from a different frame of reference. Hara writes, “Technology will bring forth new possibilities, but it is still only an environment, not creativity itself.” That I find immensely important.

A simple, relatable example is useful in understanding this concept: Jazz music. Two traditions of African and European music collided to form an entirely new genre, manifesting serendipitous harmonies out of thin air that were nonexistent only a few years prior. The instruments of this era, such as the saxophone and piano, merely served their musicians as tools of exploration; it took skill and wisdom to actualize their potential.

Just as Jazz musicians are able to play tunes on their saxes, we must also think on the computer as an instrument. At present we are limited by its capability for beautiful melodies, but more human-centric design of its systems and interfaces could give us the potential to discover something entirely new and wonderful.