The Virtual as Analog: Selectors and the iPad
It turns out the virtual is analog. The analog is being atomized, the atoms mapped to bits, and then reassembled on the other side of the glass. It’s probably something like how we imagine teleportation will work. As computer interfaces advance, they are tending to look more like real life. We’ve always connected to the digital through a keyboard, or a cursor control, and set of commands in the form of text or menus. As the iPad continues the roll out of touch screens and multi-touch gestures— this model will radically change. While radical change in computer interface usually means having to learn a whole new set of random abstractions to trigger actions; this change is a radical simplification. The layer of abstraction is no longer random. The physical world is being abstracted into a symbolic layer, a control and interaction surface, to act on the software operating on the other side of the glass. The physics and culture of the natural world provide the context we need to understand how to interact with, and control, the software.
In the light of this new interaction environment, initiatives like Information Cards start to make a lot more sense. In analyzing the problem of internet identity, including the subtopics of authentication, authorization, roles and claims— it became clear that a metaphor was required. Something that would connect to a person’s everyday experience with identity in the real world. The idea of wallets (selectors) and cards seemed like a natural fit. The behaviors an individual would be expected to perform with a selector are analogous to those done every day with the wallet in your back pocket or purse.
The problem with information cards has been that the computing environment hasn’t allowed human-computer interaction at the level of real world analogy. Web site login screens are geared toward keyboards and text fields, not toward accepting cards from a wallet (selector). Now imagine using a selector on an iPad. It looks like a wallet. You can apply whatever surface style that complements your personal style. You’ve filled it with cards— both identity cards and action cards. When you surf to a web site or an application that requires authentication, your selector is activated and provides you with a small selection of cards that can be used for this context. You choose one, slide it out of the selector with your finger and drag it to the appropriate spot on the screen. In the new era of the iPad, that’s an interaction model that makes perfect sense.
In their interaction design guidelines, Apple addresses the issue of metaphors very directly:
When possible, model your application’s objects and actions on objects and actions in the real world. This technique especially helps novice users quickly grasp how your application works
Abstract control of applications is discouraged in favor of direct manipulation:
Direct manipulation means that people feel they are controlling something tangible, not abstract. The benefit of following the principle of direct manipulation is that users more readily understand the results of their actions when they can directly manipulate the objects involved.
Originally selectors were tied to a specific device, and this made them impractical when hopping between multiple devices. However a number of cloud-based selectors have recently emerged to solve this problem. As with all current internet identity solutions, there’s a lot of machinery at work under the covers. But from the user’s perspective, simply selecting a card and tossing it to the software application requesting authentication will radically reduce friction for both the user and the system.
Taking the metaphor a step further, it’s simple to imagine carrying my selector on an iPhone or iPad (or similar device) and using it to replace many of the cards I now carry in my wallet. The authentication event, rather than occurring within a particular device, would occur between devices. The phone becomes a key.
This new interaction environment heralds a radical change in the way we work and play with computers. Authentication, internet identity and information cards are just one example. We could have just as easily examined the human-computer interface of the financial services industry. Portfolio management and analysis, stock trading, and research will all need to be re-imagined in light of radical simplicity of this new world. The random, abstract and symbolic interfaces of computing will start to look quite antique by this time next year.