Review: Spatial Interface by John Palmer

The Author envisions a more intuitive and simple design language for softwares and regular user interfaces. It is a great article about intuitiveness and what’s upcoming in UI/UX trends for making interactions with softwares more natural and simple.

Author starts the article with an open note on how a deck of cards can be used in infinite ways. Want to play some poker, arrange some cards and you are good to go, want to play some blackjack rearrange cards and you can do that too. The main point here is that in the real world the deck of cards can be used for any card game related to it but if we try to implement that in a traditional 2D Interfaces it is really hard to build and each platform will end up with it’s own set of Interface. Consider poker as a game which is being played in many platforms and each platform ends up with a different set of interface which, believe or not, have some hindrance and connecting to the game. But by just moving the deck into a 3D scenario you can reduce its complexity by many folds.

Author pointed out that we design software as flat, 2D planes rather than showing depth, because it’s simpler and easier in 2D Screens. 3D Menu and forms would be a pain so we reduce functionality (I am a developer too so can’t deny its true xD). Then he pointed out that there are some applications where increasing the dimensionality to 3D can make the application more intuitive, and he is optimistic about it as a major force in near future of software and below are his reasons:

  • We tend to associate these concepts with gaming and gaming is growing extremely fast, which I also agree with.
  • From a technical standpoint, we are at a turning point with the ease of 3D Programming, animation software, and browser’s ability to render 3D graphics. Tools like WebGL, ThreeJS, Unity, Unreal all are available and software designers should consider them seriously. And this is true also as personally I have tried Unity and It’s easier to get started in building 3D as well as make it ready for web with their WebGL Support.

“Humans are spatial Creatures. We experience most of life in relation to space.”

Author notes that the above is a powerful knowledge as it is true and so obvious. In our daily life most of our interactions are related to spaces around us. As I am writing this my hands are interacting with the keyboard and I can see objects which are on my table and my eyes can detect that spatial difference upto those objects on the table.

In particular some applications use spatial relationships to suggest how they should be used. Incarnations of this thinking are called spatial affordances. Spatial affordances in software use our intuitive understanding of spatial relationships to make sense of what UI elements do, and are one way to use spatial thinking to design software. Some examples of this can be how your Phone Icon represents the old telephone receiver 📞 to intuitively let you know it’s a phone application in your smartphone.

In the article, the author writes that Software designers are already familiar with skeuomorphic design, which aims to give users affordances for what UI Elements do by making them visually represent real-world counterparts. He notes that a spatial affordance can be an instance of skeuomorphic design. This occurs when the spatial affordance directly analogizes the real world, as in skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphic spatial affordance as a user requires very little mental overhead, but yet this is rare in most software today. So to answer why, the author concluded that it’s hard to directly analogize the real, 3D world in 2D. A hard example can be how cumbersome it gets to visualise a mountain in a 2D Map with written heights.

Most apps use some spatial concepts to make it easier to understand how to get back to certain screens. As an example, the author discussed “stacking” screens and snapchat. In short, intuitiveness comes from relatedness to the real world in the software.

Next author discussed how different softwares uses spatial affordances.

For calendars the author gave an example on how Sococo makes it easier by it’s 2D bird eye view on floor plans of offices. Which makes it really easy to see who people are in the office and where. In meetings, at lunch or wherever within the floor plan.

In the context of meetings, the UX of video conferencing is broken. And there is a lot of greenfield for spatial thinking in space. He gives an example on how gallery view or Speaker view is in itself non intuitive. He also gives an example which is on spot regarding the standup in meetings. After doing classes for almost 18 months in virtual mode I can attest that the connectedness which one can feel in an actual classroom is not there in virtual meetings and a lot of spatial innovation is required for the same.

For messaging, the inclusion of a body and the ability to arrange our characters near each other is what produced a much stronger feeling of togetherness and emotional connection. He takes examples from figma and also a sketch of a messaging concept.

For browsing the internet, there have been many different ways of thinking about navigating the internet spatially. He also jolted down an idea of “trails” which is most interesting to me because most of the time web surfing and if you want to share your thought process it can be a really great way of communicating. A simple version of trails is as follows:

  • Each single Pixel is a precise location on a webpage.
  • Place of a breadcrumb can be from “+” option
  • While navigating you can leave breadcrumbs on different pages.
  • When you are done you have a “trail of breadcrumbs”.
  • You can jump forward and backward on the trail later.

One other interesting idea is to have a map view of the internet where you can place different things on spatial references. Like placing your personal website near your friends domain name, etc. which gives a new and intuitive way for navigating the internet and how webpages are related.

For conference’s the best parts happen outside of the scheduled programming. The magic is the unexpected interactions with people you bump into. And a simulator for the same will be great, as well as improve the ability to run conferences remotely.

As a final note, Author is optimistic about the spatial interfaces and thinks there’s something blogger on the horizon. Until today new worlds and environments have been specialised fields but with newer and advanced tools spatial interfaces are hard to ignore, it won’t remain for long. We’re already noticing signs, Virtual Concerts, Virtual Playgrounds and Employees starting working together in VR. And we can make game-like interfaces for anything.

As an additional vision consider a workplace, totally in virtual mode. When you log in to go to your company, once you log in you go inside the premises and talk to people who are passing you and going to their workspace rooms. You go to the lift to reach your workspace on the 5th floor of company premises. You go to your room, use your key to enter the room and inside you have a desk and a chair, with a laptop on the table. You walk to the chair, sit down and start your work day in the virtual space. It will deduct the need for having any physical land premise and also be safe from calamity, theft and advantages are numerous as well as it is a great vision which is inspired after reading the author’s article in my mind.

The article provides a better future in simple and intuitive interfaces as well as a new hope in the software industry. We are near the horizon where real and virtual worlds are thinning the gap and major innovations are on their way to build this into a reality.

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