24 December, 2008

The Rise of Contextual User Interfaces

Web 2.0 has brought many wonderful innovations and ideas to the Internet. We can no longer imagine the web without a social dimension, and we can no longer imagine an online world that is read-only - it is now a read/write web full of user-generated content. But there is another fairly recent innovation, which might have just as profound implications. We're speaking of the contextual user interface.

Even five years ago we lived in the boxed world of Windows-dominated UIs. There were standard UI elements - menus, tabs, combo boxes, tables - and every single desktop application was full of these elements and nothing else. User interface was not the place to be innovative. It was considered unorthodox and even dangerous to present the interface in non-standard ways because everyone believed that users were, to be frank, stupid, and wouldn't want to deal with anything other than what they were used to.

Strikingly, the recent wave of UI innovation is proving exactly the opposite. Users are not stupid, and in fact, they were overwhelmed with choices presented in traditional UIs. The new interfaces are winning people over because they are based on usage patterns instead of choices. The key thing about new UIs is that they are contextual - presenting the user with minimal components and then changing in reaction to user gestures. Thanks to Apple, we have seen a liberating movement towards simplistic, contextual interfaces. But can these UIs become the norm? In this post we take a look at the rise of the contextual UI and ponder if they will cross the chasm.