Will Baker
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Screening screens

Among other things, I design screen interfaces to make money. When I started doing this kind of job, there were far fewer screens, and far fewer of those screens were calling for interface design.

This past Thursday, Big Fruit announced their latest computers. I currently do all my work on an old (archaic, by today’s standards) Big Fruit computer which—stable and trustworthy as it has been—is starting to show its age in many of the same ways humans do: it is mechanically and cognitively slower and less reliable, it is more stubborn and more forgetful, and it somehow manages to hum along peacefully in the privacy of its Hadean woodshed of hoarded email clippings but immediately shits itself whenever I try to take it out in public. So I’ve been keeping an ear to the ground, ready to warn my credit card company to expect an irresponsibly large but not-fraudulent charge. And finally the day came, and it came with the touchscreen function row.

I’m not here to talk about whether Big Fruit has fallen off, or to explicitly talk much about Big Fruit at all, for that matter. What I am interested in discussing, though, is the fact that there is now yet another fucking screen on the mainstream market.

Setting aside my fondness for tactile feedback and mechanical inputs, I’m going to jump straight to my biggest concern: yet another screen means yet another degree of complexity added to my already ironically complex job as an interface designer. For many designers, this is exciting, as it means more learning, more experimenting, more goofy loading animations. But for me, it means I have to design more limited, incapable, unintelligent, tangentially half-baked versions of whatever products I’m working hard to design as singular, powerful, capable, intelligent, focused, and no-batter-on-the-toothpick experiences.

Starting at the computer level (the distinction between desktops and (true) laptops (not tablets with keyboards) is mostly inconsequential anymore) and stepping down all the way to, I don’t know, digital picture frames or something, we see interfaces decay in usability and, with a few exceptions, capability, until we’re developing entirely new hardware for ionic bits of software which are fundamentally (deliberately) incapable of working as well as or being as useful as their more robust ancestors. (“Ancestors” here alluding to the implicit evolutionary chronology which Big Fruit and its peers would have us accept as obvious and obviously what we want, where the computer is an ape and the smartwatch is a human, and that more functionality means more confusion, and so less control, and so less power, when the opposite is true.) Furthering this dissection of functions are my employers and myself; the companies and individuals behind branded, proprietary experiences which distinguish themselves from their competition through their own contextual neutering and isolating of the meager functionality with which the makers of the hardware have bestowed them.

And at the end of it all is the user. The user who is compelled to purchase every screen and learn every increasingly monetized, decreasingly capable, obfuscating visual interface which, if designed successfully, doesn’t even require her to be able to read the words beneath her fingers as she scrolls, swipes, and taps. Because why would she? Big Fruit and friends say if she needn’t, she shouldn’t.