Interfaces for the Next Generation (or What I've Learned Watching Toddlers with iPhones)

Anyone with little kids knows their interest in mobile phones—you can't tear them apart. There's much hilarity to be had as they make random calls, at unfortunate times to long forgotten contacts. It's been the same with my iPhone, but what I didn't expect was that my 3 year old son wouldn't just play with it, he'd actually figure it out, all on his own.

In the 3 months I've had it, he's learned how to:

  • Unlock it and browse applications
  • Scroll, swipe, tap and shake
  • Take and browse photos
  • Open iTunes to watch Sesame Street podcasts
  • Open the iPod, find videos and watch them
  • Play happily with the assortment of kids Apps I've installed for him
  • Check the weather in the morning (and promptly announce his findings—very handy indeed)

He's done all this just by watching me use it, then experimenting on his own. It won't be long before he starts running up a not-so-amusing bill as he freely downloads Apps and media. It's amazing to watch. He just… gets it.

Numb to the Complexity

It's becoming clear that multi-touch isn't just a fad, it's not only here to stay, it's (perhaps very quickly) going to replace analogue buttons. The iPhone is a sublime example of the future of digital interfaces. It's (quite rightly) heralded as an incredibly advanced piece of technology, yet at the same time is game-changingly simple.

What I hadn't appreciated until now is the quantum leap multi-touch makes in allowing previously excluded people the chance to interact with digital media. It wasn't until seeing my son using the iPhone that I realized how anaesthetised I'd become to the complexity of interfaces—the overwhelming nature of a keyboard, with modifiers and shortcut combinations. The ungainly mouse with its ambiguous buttons and spatially-quirky relationship with that oddest of things—the cursor.

We take all these things for granted, but for those growing up with multi-touch, the ability to directly manipulate the screen will become the de facto. We don't have a TV at home, and the first thing my son did when he encountered one at his grandparents' was to put his sticky fingers all over it—then very quickly lose interest in a device that was boringly, stubbornly passive.

Oct 01 2009

James Bowskill

James Bowskill leads interactive design at A.C.O. in Tokyo, where he has lived since 2001. He also maintains a growing collection of Japanese packaging.

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