Human-computer interfaces have come a long way since the early days when computer users typed line after line of computer jargon using green text on black screens. This was clearly an interface that only a technologist could love - the rest of us simply had to put up with it if we wanted or had to use a computer. It was clear to some people that significant improvements would be needed in order to achieve the increase in productivity that was being promised through the use of computers.
This awareness led to advances that made the interface more visual using techniques such as menus to ease the burden on users' memories. But the human-computer interface was still comparatively in the dark ages - each application had its own unique interface and there was little similarity across applications. The computer could still only be used effectively by highly skilled specialists and enthusiasts who were willing to invest a significant amount of time in learning and, to put up with the computer's quirky demands and behaviors.
By the time the modern graphical user interface, or GUI, became available, computer technology was becoming more accessible to businesses and individuals. GUIs used computer graphics, little images called icons, and the mouse to make using a computer easier. Many applications started to look similar because standard controls, such as menus, buttons, and check boxes, were provided by the computer manufacturer. It was easier for application developers to use the standard controls than it was for them to develop their own, so users benefited as well. But even though the basic interface mechanisms were becoming more consistent and easier to use, applications and the overall user environment were becoming more and more complex. A word processor could be used not only for writing documents, but could also include spreadsheet data, charts, and drawings. Users were no longer limited to running one application at a time - they could run several in separate windows that overlapped on the display.
In the late 1980s, the HCI group at IBM recognized that users would be overwhelmed by these new capabilities and that the computer itself was doing little to help them manage several things at once. This recognition led to the development of the object-oriented user interface, which allows users to focus on the information they need to do their work and hides many of the traditional aspects of using a computer that users don't need or want to worry about.
Where is this evolution leading? To be fully embraced by the general population and become a bonafide consumer product, the evolution must take the computer through some further steps to make it even more simple and natural to use. One major factor will be the presentation of information and computer capabilities that resemble what users see and experience in the real world. Users will interact with telephones, fax machines, and writing tablets on the computer display that look and behave very much like their real world counterparts, while at the same time providing additional capabilities that aren't possible in the real world. Users will visit places presented using three-dimensional graphics and virtual reality techniques. They will visit libraries and historical sites, and chat with friends and colleagues throughout the world, all from the comfort of their office, living room, or hotel room. Instead of using cumbersome and unfamiliar computer-oriented devices, users will interact with computers using natural human-oriented techniques, such as writing and speaking. And the computer will exhibit characteristics of personality that will make it seem more friendly and pleasant to work with.
This evolutionary advancement is being driven by the fast-growing technology of the personal computer and by increasing demands from users that the computer match their way of thinking, rather than the other way around. Computers are becoming a part of everyday life. As a result, we recognize that the user interface is one of the most critical elements of consumer acceptance. Please take a few moments and visit some of our other Web pages to learn more about the IBM approach to designing for a stellar user experience.