The Future of UI design

Remember how awesome google maps was when you first saw it? The thing I remember most was how great it felt to zoom in and out around any point on the map and see details appear and disappear. You could virtually travel around the world - just by typing a few words and a few mouse clicks. Did you know Google maps falls under a broad category called ZUI (zooming user interface)?

Despite how awesome this interface is for maps, it’s failed to catch on in other areas. Or maybe it’s still in progress. Have you heard of ChronoZoom (an open source way of visualizing time and written for html5; 2.0 beta was just released in March)? Or how about GigaPan, ”a collaborative project between Carnegie Mellon University and NASA Ames Intelligent Systems Division’s Robotics Group with support from Google”? The economist recently wrote an article about ZUIs. Perhaps you’ve heard of Prezi, a zooming presentation editor. Here are a few more:

  • Grape - a visual and spacial desktop manager for MacOS X.
  • Eagle Mode - a zooming file manager.
  • Dasher - an information-efficient text-entry interface.

A ZUI looks futuristic, which is why it was featured in movies like Jurassic Park and Minority Report. The File System Navigator (fsn) showed up in the former and the famous interface from the latter included a ZUI.

What’s so great about a ZUI?

  • It’s more natural.
  • It can more easily manage complexity.
  • It speeds up search and navigation.
  • It can look the same on both desktop and mobile.

For these reasons, I think the ZUI has a bright future. But like any new technology, it needs to have a tipping point. A “killer app”, or new frontier.

I think developer tools should be the next frontier for the ZUI. Developers are among the brightest people who use computers, and for obvious reasons, we tend to be on the forefront of users of new software and technology. That’s why I think we’re ready for a new kind of user-interface. Perhaps the ZUI is that interface. 

What awesome new IDE are startup companies using right now? According to bestvendor, most of them are still using Eclipse or Netbeans. These IDE’s are awesome projects under continuous improvements and have a huge eco-system of plugins and development, but the core UI has not changed since their inception almost ten years ago.

Talk is cheap, which is why I went ahead and wrote an open-source ZUI-IDE