by Morten Just

Your UI is your product’s humble compensation for not being telepathic

Take a few products and keep asking “what is this compensating for?” and you’ll eventually end up with the same answer. And that answer may be why conversational interfaces could get in trouble

Cruz Marrero was texting. She felt a cold stone wall smash against her lower leg. The mall noises became the bubbly sounds you hear when you are snorkeling. She had fallen into the mall fountain. She was now in the mall fountain with her entire body. No one is supposed to be in the mall fountain with their entire body. A dozen people froze in their steps and stared. In the coming weeks the spectator count reached millions. Some of those may even have fallen into fountains themselves while watching the video of her doing it. Mobile phones and other screens hog the center of our attention like a cat and a red laser dot. We are clumsy zombies.

Cruz Marrero would not have fallen into the mall fountain had she used a better kind of thought transfer. Because that’s what a phone does. If you ask Stephen King, reading this sentence is telepathy. He moves a thought from his head into his reader’s head. We can say the same thing about design for digital products. The app moves a piece of information from its database into your head. The question is how fast.

Marrero was walking in the mall while texting. Maybe she was also trying to find out when her train leaves. She could have been at the mall with her husband, talking about what to have for dinner. She was also trying not to walk in to the mall fountain. That’s a lot of things at the same time, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do them all at the same time. Not with the right degree of telepathy.

So what are they, the various degrees of telepathy, and how could they help keep Marerro dry while still finding out when the next train leaves, and settle on Chinese vs. Italian food for dinner?

Distracted telepathy

In today’s shoddy degree of telepathy you take out your phone, unlock it, resist the temptations of checking Twitter mentions, Facebook birthdays, and work emails. You open the train app and mine out the information. More often than not, the train app will try too keep you hanging around for a while. Special offer. Rail News. Weekend getaway.

Even today, an app designer can improve their app with telepathy in two ways. First, outbound telepathy is figuring out what the user wants. Then, inbound telepathy is about shipping that information to the user’s head. Any decision a designer makes will either take the product closer to telepathy, or move away from telepathy.

Verbal telepathy

We’re moving into science fiction territory now, but as we’ll see in a moment, a gang of new products are taking the first steps. We can imagine verbal telepathy using your brain voice. The brain voice—or inner voice—is what you hear when you read text, like right now. With verbal telepathy, the inner voice would work like a keyboard—instead of typing, you “speak” silently with your inner voice. That is the outbound telepathy. The inner voice also works like a speaker. Instead of reading, you ”listen” to the inner voice. That is the inbound telepathy.

BRAIN VOICE: When is my next train?
BRAIN VOICE: 6 minutes

We may never get that far, but it’s a point in the horizon, something to aim for. As I mentioned, companies are warming up. They’re doing the next-best thing, they’re doing the compensation: tiny actual microphones and actual speakers to put into your ear, like in the movie Her. It’s not verbal telepathy in the purest sense, more like vocal telepathy, but it’s closer than a smartphone.

But something isn’t quite right. Verbal telepathy takes over the part of our brain that deals with language. It’s like running a heavy app on an old laptop; it works, everything else slows down, pauses, or crashes.

When we read something, Broca’s area spins up. It gets images of words from the eyes and turns them into sounds of speech—spoken with the brain voice. It then ships those word sounds to the Wernicke’s area. Wernicke’s make sense of the sounds. Wernicke’s area doesn’t know if it is reading text on a phone display, or if it is talking to fellow flesh and bones. It either pays all of its attention or nothing at all. A coworker once half-joked, “when we’re in a conversation, the brain freaks out. It’s so complicated, there’s so much going on that it’s paralyzing the brain temporarily.”

When it comes to how we interact with computers, it seems our wildest dreams, the most ambitious vision we can think of is a disappointing and naive one: to turn a computer into a person. A brainy butler—and, preferably, it seems, a female one.

There are at least two problems here. First, humanness is hard for a computer. To make it worse, humans are exceptionally virtuous at pointing out non-human objects that pretend to be human. So, to follow the dream of creating a computer that imitates humans, scientists end up spending fortunes and decades faking a female butler, rather than solving the problem they set out to do in the first place. Like finding out when the damn train leaves. Second, why should our tools be like us in the first place? We’re not trying to speak to hammers, bridges and or bottle openers.

It seems that in our wildest dreams, the most ambitious vision we can think of is to make our computers behave like a really brainy female butler

And maybe not speaking to all our tools is a good thing. We would find our human-to-human conversations broken up constantly. Hang on, I need to talk to my microwave about the oatmeal. The language centers in our brains are those old laptops I mentioned above; using them for one conversation simply shuts down other conversations. To the brain, texting while talking to a friend is no different from striking up a conversation with a third person, mid-conversation. No wonder that pisses many people off. And if that wasn’t enough, telepathy—or the assistant-for-whatever—based on verbal conversations actually seems to be a step backwards. Comedian Gary Gulman explains:

- Hello 411?
- We’re listening
- Every movie theater within a 25 miles radius of where I’m standing
- Where are you standing?
- You tell me.
- Is that all?
- Oh no. That’s far from all. I want movies and showtimes. I also want an alphabetical listing of the actors. I want to know what else they’ve been in. I want a review of this movie. Also, I want to know if they have been in anything with Kevin Bacon. Then, I want you to see if any of my friends are in the area. And if they are, I’d like to see if they’re hungry. Find a Thai-fusion Viking restaurant for us. Make us a reservation and let them know that Anna is allergic to shell fish. Now play “Born to run”

This fits with my experiences booking a dozen flights with Pana, a chat app for travel booking. I find myself going back and forth, like this

Pana: Here are three flights that will take you to Boston [Flight list]
Me: How much extra is business?
Pana: Hang on, I’ll find out
Pana: Here are some options [Flight list]
Me: How about economy plus?
Pana: Hang on I’ll check that for you!
Pana: Here are some options [Flight list]
Me: That’s too early, I’d like to leave around noon
Pana: Hang on, I’ll find a later flight
Conversational UI gone chatty

In a non-conversational app I would hit the sort button, tweak the departure time, and click the business class button to see how much I’m definitely not spending. It could probably work, though. The chat UI could serve up rich controls people could use to get better results. Or the person or artificially intelligent chat bot in the other end of the conversation would have to be extremely smart and proactive. Going back to Gary’s scenario, it would be something like this

- What’s next?
- Booked tickets for you, Rob, Paul Alice for Money Monsters at 9pm, and a table at Odin Kacha at 8. [Born to run fades in]

Trading information with trust. That’s okay if the movie and restaurant recommendations are spot on, every time. Which they always are. Right?

If you think I’m being cruel to the written word, you should see what McLuhan had to say,

[When man begins using the alphabet, he] begins reasoning in a sequential linear fashion; he begins categorizing and classifying data. As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialties, creating division of function, of social classes, of nations and of knowledge — and in the process, the rich interplay of all the senses that characterized the tribal society is sacrificed.
— Marshall McLuhan

Intuitive telepathy

This leads us to the next degree of thought transfer—intuitive telepathy. We already do this, every day. And that’s the point. We don’t have to open an app to find out when we need to go to the bathroom, or eat, or sleep, or drink. We don’t have to type in a search, or even render a conscious thought to grasp that a dark sky means rain. We just know. Either because we remember, or because it sits so deeply in our brain that we don’t even know why we know anymore. Here’s Marc Weiser:

There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention. Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.
Marc Weiser, The Coming Age of Smart Technology

It’s the “center and periphery of attention” bit that’s interesting. As you’re reading this, you’re using the center of your attention, but there’s a ton going on in your peripheral attention. Weather, temperature, amount of daylight, street noise, people, music, coffee steam, barking dogs, church bells, trains, the wooden chair. The center of attention, however, is a one-thing-at-a-time kind of a device, and making sense of language eats up most of it most of the time. So it does seem that the peripheral attention holds a larger promise. We can take in huge loads of information—at the same time—as long as it’s not language. We already do.

We’re back in the mall. To play this out, let’s say you’re chatting with your friend, and all of a sudden, you get the sense—a hunch — that you should be leaving soon. You may have gotten a clue from your wrist watch, an intelligent tattoo, your fabric sleeve LEDs, a tactile display on your back or your belt or your tongue, or whatever it is, that’s not important. What’s important is that it took almost no cycles out of your center of attention. You maintained eye contact, and the conversation didn’t stop. You didn’t fall into the mall fountain.

Minutes later, as you step onto the station platform, the train arrives. No waiting. Imagine what this would do for finding your way to the hotel in a new city, or figuring out if you should bring an umbrella.

Amazingly scary or scaringly amazing

More or less unconscious telepathy could be scary and amazing, like nuclear technology and robots. We can get helpful robots that run forever on nuclear power, and we can get robots that build and detonate nuclear bombs. In 1984, the regime really wants to read people’s minds, but haven’t yet invented the full technology. Winston has a TV-like device on the wall that sees, hears, displays, and talks, but that’s it. Basically a Samsung tv.

The bright side of intuitive telepathy could be many times larger than the scary one. It lets us push boring stuff into the background. It lets us focus on what matters: talking to people, making things, eating meatball banh mi, going on runs, calling parents, playing with kids. Things that most people don’t think they’re doing enough today.

And, again, we may never get intuitive telepathy, and that’s okay. We may never want intuitive telepathy, and that’s also okay. It’s the path leading to intuitive telepathy, the products that fall out on the way, that’s what this is about.

Designing a product comes down to making a series of compensations. There are feature compensations. Buttons are feature compensations for not knowing what you want to do next. Buttons are intent sensors, basically. And then there’s the category compensation. A weather app partly compensates for not handing you an umbrella as you leave the door, or just canceling your picnic before everyone packs their white short sleeves. At one time in history, writing a letter was the best compensation for not telegraphing. Telegraphing for not faxing. Faxing for not emailing. Emailing for not texting. Texting for not…Snapchatting? Snapchatting for not…well, we’ll find out soon.

What’s probably even more interesting, the product that gets the closest to telepathy without introducing too many new pains is the product most likely to dominate the market within the next decade — for a decade. Even if the current category leader just got a new logo, or is big in China.

So if you keep asking “what does this compensate for,” you’ll eventually end up with telepathy.

Or will you?

Navigating to a place is an example of a task that may be best solved not by telepathy, but teleportation. A paper map compensates for not showing all the streets in the world, for not letting you search, and for not just knowing where you are on the map. Google Maps does all that, but it compensate for not already knowing where you’re going, not knowing all the shortcuts, and not letting you focus on traffic. At the end of the day, all maps, be they made of paper or bits, compensate for not being able to just teleport you to where you’re going.

Telepathy, teleportation, and love

So that’s telepathy and teleportation as directional goals. There are other tools that could slide into the background, but probably should not. They are the things we love. The things that slow down life in pleasant ways. Or, as Claus once put it, “telepathy is for the design of unloved things.”

At the end of the day, maps compensate for not beaming you to where you’re going.

Soylent is not going to replace all meals. Eating a meal is not always a compensation for having a frail human body that needs nutrition. Emptily staring at the ocean is not a compensation for teleporting across it. Telling a joke is not a compensation for your best friend already knowing the joke. Painting, singing and acting are not compensations for the audience not already feeling the same emotion. These are things we love, and telepathy should help us get more of them, not remove them.

So roughly, we have two boxes for our products. One for doing things we love, and one for doing things we don’t care about. Sometimes tools are able to move from one box to the other. They are able to distract us from the fact that we don’t care. As an example, it’s okay that those beautiful stairs in Mexico City are not teleportation. Except that night a few weeks ago its residents were woken up by a 6.1 earthquake. People at the top floors were simply watching people on the lower floors running out of the building.

The stairs in the middle achieve a higher degree of teleportation by distracting people to fall in love with it. But the master teleporter is the elevator.

As designers, we’re enabling telepathy. We can use this fact to think about how much that extra button or that long line of copy will slow down the thought transfer. We may never get genuine telepathy, but we can think about the next step towards it. As long as that next step is not going into the mall fountain.

Follow @mortenjust on Twitter for experiments in contemporary telepathy and how to actually use this stuff in today’s UI. Then hit the green heart.