Recommended Books on the Future of User Interface

by Jakob Nielsen on January 1, 2007

Tog on Software Design , by Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini (Addison Wesley).
Tog's predictions for user interfaces around the Year 2004, based on Sun Microsystem's "Starfire" project. About half of the book is a detailed discussion of one specific design for a very high-end future multimedia computer system with highly integrated collaboration features. The other half of the book consists of essays about the future of computing as well as general user interface issues (e.g., a chapter called "On the Punishment of Users").

Learning from Other Media

When inventing future interaction styles to go beyond "WIMP", other communication media form a good source of inspiration. It is clear that computers are becoming the most important medium and they do differ from other media in being interactive (thus the need for usability engineering ), but even so, we can learn much from studies of the communicative aspects of earlier media.

Understanding Comics , by Scott McCloud (Harper Perennial).
Comics are a two-dimensional medium for communicating stories graphically. Sounds a lot like a computer screen, doesn't it? This book clearly shows why good comics work and much of the design and layout theory that has been developed over a hundred years or more of drawing comics. The book uses its own medium to illustrate the points: it's a comic book and actually quite entertaining.
McCloud has his own website where you can read his ventures into online comics. One of the few sites where you don't mind the download time for the images.
Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic , by Wendy Lefkon and the Imagineers (Hyperion).
Theme parks are one of the few non-computer media types to be interactive. This gorgeously illustrated book takes us behind the scenes and shows drafts and some of the design process in the building of the most successful theme parks so far.
Computers as Theatre , by Brenda Laurel (Addison Wesley).
Despite being rather famous, this book is somewhat boring and the reader has to work hard at abstracting the lessons from the curious mix of dry theory and overly hip "Wired"-style quips. There are a lot of lessons to be had, though.

Future Scenarios

Scenario planning is one of the best systematic approaches to futurism.

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World , by Peter Schwartz.
Not about user interfaces but a general introduction to the scenario method for futurism.

Science Fiction

Science fiction books are a "low-fidelity" form of user interface prototyping: by use of no technology beyond simple words on a page, the author can invoke a futuristic user interface in the reader's mind. Also, since these books are fiction, they tend to focus on how the system is used in the context of a story (or " scenario " as we UI folks would put it). All in all, a good way of getting exposed to interface notions beyond the current conventions (and enjoyable: I am only recommending SF books that I personally think are a good read).

True Names , by Vernor Vinge (St. Martins Press).
The original science fiction treatment of chat rooms and avatars taken to the N'the degree.
The Diamond Age , by Neal Stephenson (Bantam Books).
The "young lady's primer" in this book is an interesting idea for a user interface that grows with the child and reflects her education.
Snow Crash , by Neal Stephenson (Spectra Books).
Many interesting UIs, including a globe as interface to satellite and weather data and the use of electronic business cards. Virtual reality and avatars are well described even though I think we are being a little over-exposed to these ideas.
Neuromancer , by William Gibson (Ace Books).
The book that launched the concept of cyberspace as a VRML-like navigational landscape.
Ender's Game , by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books).
Two interesting UI ideas: The use of immersive simulation games for training and the use of multi-level newsgroups where valued authors are promoted to have their postings distributed nationally.
Flatland , by Edwin A. Abbott (New American Library).
No UI or computers, but great food for thought when you want to go out-of-the-box and move beyond current limitations. This classic takes place in a two-dimensional world (and even visits a one-dimensional LineLand).

Finally, as discussed in my essay on Harry Potter , books about magic can give a preview of what will happen when formerly inanimate objects come alive, embodying computational power, sensors, awareness, and connectivity.


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