Communicating With Technology: The Evolution of the User Interface

Communicating With Technology: The Evolution of the User Interface

There are many details that go into designing a user interface, whether for a consumer electronics gadget or a sophisticated machine used in industrial settings. Behind every gadget and every piece of equipment is a human operator, and the way that person communicates with the gadget determines what happens next. Naturally, people prefer user interfaces that are intuitive, but they also want their gadgets to be capable of sophisticated processes.

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That means the user interface is responsible for bridging the gap between the device’s functionality and the simplified user controls. It’s no easy feat, so it’s not surprising that user interfaces have undergone some changes over the years.

It all begins with a power switch

Early user interfaces were designed to operate basic electronic gadgets. These switches enable the user to disable or activate the power source, allowing the device to function. Electronic gadgets have undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few decades, incorporating smarter technologies and decreasing in size – posing significant challenges for user interface designers who must cram more functionality into an increasingly smaller physical space.

A good example of this is the evolution from the record player to the mp3s of today. Record players, also called gramophones or phonographs, used large, round disks placed on a rotating platform. The user simply operated the device by enabling the power source – placing an arm with a needle or stylus carefully on the outside edge of the record. The sound from these devices is awful by modern standards, although there is a growing underground culture of enthusiasts who claim the sound from old phonographs is more authentic than that produced by the mp3 players of today.

Primitive interfaces allow limited user control

There were a few problems with this design beyond sound quality. First, users had little control over the sound and the manual process of placing the arm in the precise position could be difficult. If done incorrectly, the needle could scratch the record, rendering it useless. There were no options to adjust the bass, stereo or graphic equalizer settings. A few late models offered the ability to adjust the overall sound using a basic lever.

After phonographs, the user interface matured a great deal with the introduction of the eight-track player. These devices used a larger plastic housing to hold magnetic tape – the part of the cassette that contained the music. The devices used to play these cassettes had a slew of controls and options compared to a phonograph. Users could use knobs to control the sound level. Eight-track players also came in portable options and a few models were incorporated into vehicle dashboards, which was never possible with the phonograph as it would skip.

More settings are introduced as consumers demand versatility

Cassette tapes were next in the evolutionary cycle. These smaller versions of the eight-track operated in a similar manner, and the electronic devices used to play these cassettes were a bit more advanced. Many cassette players also included standard radios, making it a more versatile option for entertainment at home and in the car. While eight-track players were manufactured for a period of about 20 years, cassette players originated around 1962.

Compact cassettes, while smaller in size, could store more music than eight-tracks. But even these music devices endured a rather short lifespan, reaching their peak in the 1980s before being overtaken by compact discs. The move from compact music cassettes to compact discs (CDs), however, wasn’t accompanied by a drastic shift in the user experience.

In fact, the electronic devices used to activate the music from these cassettes and discs underwent their own independent evolution over the same time period, while the overall concept remained the same. For a short time, portable stereos were compatible with both cassettes and CDs to provide versatility for users. Stereos during this period had a more complex user interface than eight-track players, beginning to incorporate advanced functions such as more precise volume control and the ability to control various components of the audio.

Membrane switches become the foundation for the user interface

Membrane switch manufacturers started to play a bigger role around this time, designing more sophisticated user interfaces with more advanced functionality. As CDs eventually gave way to an even smaller device – the digital mp3 – portable music players shrunk dramatically in size, requiring advanced technology like touchscreen capabilities to incorporate the many controls in such a small physical space.

Music players aside, membrane switches play a critical role in the modern user interface for many electronic devices. With a wide range of options capable of creating a completely customized look, feel and tactile feedback response, the user interface has become so important to consumers that it’s often a driving force behind purchase decisions.

These complex sets of connectors and overlays serve as the communication portal between the user and the device. The membrane switch is responsible for all the actions occurring as a result of the user exerting some type of control – and the more intuitive the experience is, the less likely users are to make errors and become frustrated.

Today, you’ll find that many user interfaces are comprised of membrane switches. Some incorporate multiple technologies in a single interface for maximum functionality – enabling device manufacturers to provide the simplest and most intuitive processes for exerting control. But thanks to technology like membrane switches, today’s consumers can make incredible things happen with a few seemingly simple buttons. And that’s precisely what they demand.