Do you read the instruction manual for anything these days? Chances are the answer is no, certainly true in my case, when I am only prepared to consult the manual occasionally to find some particularly obscure but desirable feature. On the other hand my late father, also an engineer, would patiently read every page of a manual before he touched the product. Why the change in a generation? More importantly, why does it matter?

My dad only had the occasional ‘appliance’, in his case a video recorder, or a television, and came from a generation where care was needed to operate correctly or damage would result. At the scale of the number of appliances he possessed, times the number of functions on each, very low, it was quite feasible to learn by heart the unique operating instructions for each. My sons on the other hand come from a generation where they are surrounded by countless, and ever changing, ‘devices’, covering everything from a PC, to a Smart Phone, and countless other devices. Every one of which is loaded with functionality to a point that much of it is never used; however just like advertising, where the problem is that 50% is wasted, but no one can tell which 50%; the manufacturer never knows which features each person will choose to use.
In short we know we can’t learn the thick manual so we expect the features to be presented in such a way that we can intuitively, and instantly, get the basic use from the device. Our patience is low and if we can’t get along with them, we throw them out and buy new. Now at one level this may seem to be good for the market to make for more sales, but actually I am not so sure that it is working that way right now, and more importantly think increasingly it will not work that way.
Let’s go back to phones, one of the major Mobile Telecommunications companies operates a scheme that allows you to try a new cell phone for 30 days, if not satisfied then you can return it, and swap for an alternative model. One of their people told me that people who replace a phone with a later model from the same manufacturer rarely come back for a swap. Changing from one manufacturer to another manufacturer, and there is a high exchange rate, and guess what? Yup they go back to a phone model from the original manufacturer.
So the lesson seems to be that we learn a particular user interface, it becomes instinctive, and we are not so keen to relearn a new one, but we can accept and adapt to more features added onto the existing interface. In short it’s a great example of brand lock, and the best way to sell more is to introduce more features to encourage existing users to upgrade. It’s a pretty good argument to explain why Microsoft, with its familiar Windows interface, eventually triumphed in business smart phones, while existing market leaders with high penetration of the general market have found it less easy.
Now lets compare this to another trend, that an increasing number of people have better systems at home than at work, make more choices on what they choose to load on them, and use, from the Internet. What choices will they make for the home user interface? What are they using more and more to guide them around this increasingly complex world? How does this relate to the way they are choosing to use content, communicate with people etc? How will they start to behave in work? And if I look round my colleagues I can see more and more demanding at least some degree of user rights on their PCs, and in the case of Smart Phones they want, and get, choice in which phone the company will supply them with.
It all makes me very thoughtful about the way rich interfaces are developing in Web 2.0 and the longer term impact on the business systems. Will people expect the same freedom to choose what interface they work through? What has happened in the cell phone industry around user interfaces would suggest this is a distinct possibility. If you change the user interface then it would seem likely you will change the way that the user works, and so on. Try thinking about what you and the family did on a PC over Christmas and what were the most used interfaces for those activities?