The screen, says Wilson Miner, is so pervasive a part of our culture and daily lives that screen design has become an essential part of the product, not simply a veneer or interface concealing - often inadequately - a complex piece of engineering.
This shift demands new responsibilities of the designer, who has significant control over the way everyone handles the ever-increasing proportion of their working and social lives that takes place through the medium of the screen, he says.
Miner, in Wellington to speak at the Webstock conference last month, is head of design for online music service Rdio [pronounced Ar-dee-oh], widely hailed as providing a near unrivalled online range of music for consumption on-demand from a central database for a flat monthly fee. Rdio is available in New Zealand.
When screens were an incidental part of life, Miner says, design effort was reserved for material things such as buildings and physical gadgets that were more obviously part of the human environment; now the same effort has to be put into the appearance of the displays that confront us daily, whether on our office desk, in our hands, in the corner of our living rooms or in public advertising and information displays. “I think of my iPhone as a physical product; but it’s what goes on at the level of the screen that makes the product we use every day,” he says.
It’s not really practicable, he says, to divide the problem cleanly into two – a piece of complex engineering topped off by a GUI that abstracts and simplifies it. “That’s what we’ve tried to do for the last generation of software design and it’s evident in the kind of tools that have come out of that.” In technology devised in the 1980s and 1990s, he says, “the guts of the machine are still very much exposed, like the Model T.
“The GUI hides it, but it’s like a veneer; a lot of the complexity of the engineering and how it’s built is still something the user has to deal with. The desktop operating systems we use are still very much a visual abstraction over the file system. The user has to understand that structure, even if they’re not typing command lines any more, and they’re still responsible for when things break. They’re told ‘you didn’t save your file properly’.”
Technology like the iPad takes a different approach. Another layer of abstraction conceals matters such as file structure from the user. That makes some people brought up with PC or Macintosh-style interfaces uncomfortable, he acknowledges. “It’s like not being able to open the hood of a car and figure out what’s going on.
“But if you abstract that away so the user doesn’t have to bother with it, it opens up new opportunities for things you can do on top of that, just as people can drive a car now without knowing how to repair it.” Having that skill is “no longer a price of entry,” he says, and as a result the device can be much more a part of our daily lives.
This is the approach taken by Rdio; a screen metaphor structured around albums and tracks aims to speak the language of the music fan, rather than presenting “spreadsheets of music” or a barely modified browser interface. That’s still the flavour of services such as Apple’s iTunes, he says.
Miner was one of the founders of Everyblock, a site that lets residents of more than a dozen US cities read news of events in their area and conduct discussions on locally relevant matters. In Everyblock he was the only designer, one of four staff, so he had a large influence on design. “But also we were much more limited in what we could do and so part of the challenge was to find the right narrow focus. With a small team it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. You have to define very tightly the problem you’re going to focus on.
“That was a responsibility I didn’t have at Rdio, where I came in a little later and the problem had been defined.” Clearly an established business model puts constraints on his design freedom, but design questions are still discussed in an open meeting. “What we try to do as a team, designers and engineers, is to find a way within those constraints to make a product that is going to add value to people’s lives and do something they want to do and have a positive impact, rather than just meeting the business goals and getting as many users as possible by whatever means in order to execute on of some acquisition strategy.”
Does the influence of hugely popular environments like Facebook steer design in a too-uniform direction? Some of the Facebook features, like the widely criticised Timeline, are a good idea, he says. Facebook handles a broadly similar problem to Rdio – the user is confronted with a huge volume of information. Sectioning the timeline clearly into date-stamped slices helps users find their way around the huge bulk of information they have filed over years of their lives.
Miner has also worked as a designer at Apple, which was a very different environment again, he says – though constraints on the interview time did not allow us to go into his time there.
He admits to being unimpressed by the way Apple iPhone design has influenced its rivals; “patterns like that propagate; I’d prefer to see others in the smartphone landscape questioning and pushing rather than copying.”
However, there is still plenty of innovation, Miner says. He cites and demonstrates the Clear to-do list manager from RealMac Software, which does away with buttons and controls everything by gesture. “That’s not something companies [with a history and an established look-and-feel] like Apple, Google and Microsoft can get away with.”