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Software + hardware = Complexware?

By Richard Whitehand, April 2002

Software interfaces are becoming a component of more and more everyday products, but the result is rarely improved simplicity and ease of use...why not?

Broadly speaking, there are "software designers" and "hardware designers" - two rather different breeds of designer with rather different backgrounds and ways of working. Likewise, the "usability" and "ergonomics" professions have developed with specialists in the two areas.

Until recently software interface design has largely focused on software for 'traditional' computers. Whether it be a Windows-, Mac-, UNIX-, or Web-based interface, the designer isn't concerned with the physical design of the computer's monitor, keyboard or system unit. These hardware aspects, being generic and standardised, are rarely something an interface designer can influence anyway.

The opposite is more or less true of hardware designers. Of primary concern being issues such as placement, aesthetics and construction of different parts of a product. If a product is to contain a screen then it is these characteristics which are often considered first, rather than the contents of the interface and how it will be used.

Fridge with graphical user interface
GUIs move into the kitchen!

Today, however, there is a clear growth in the number of products for which the hardware and software design must be dealt with together. The boundary between software and hardware interface design is beginning to dissolve.

Various examples exist already - interactive touch screen kiosks in shops and at airports, mobile telephones which can be used for much more than just phone calls, and washing machines with interactive displays.

Should the trend continue, and there is every indication that it will ("3G" devices and the like), then designers and developers must take a more integrated approach to design, focusing clearly on how the product will be interacted with as a whole.

Ensuring ease of use for these products will not only require traditional knowledge of human-computer interaction with software interfaces, but must be complemented with competence in the ergonomics of hardware interaction.

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