Is App Development Moving Toward User Interface Management Systems?

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Developers have factored database organization and access functions out of application building and into database management systems (DBMS). This allows developers to concentrate on the computational and user interface (UI) aspects of applications while leaving the data management complexity to database administrators. 

But now a similar thing is happening with user interfaces: The presentation and capture of user information is being isolated from the computational aspects. Could this be the beginning of user interface management systems (UIMSs)?

The examples below suggest this general trend of isolating UI functions from application logic.

Responsive design: With the rapid adoption of devices with displays of varying sizes, applications must present results on everything from smart watches to large, wall-size screens. The goal of responsive design is to recognize the size and capability of various displays so that information can be presented in formats compatible with each device. This includes information presented on devices equipped with only a speaker, using speech synthesis. 

Flexible capture software: Mobile device application developers often reuse software that allows users to choose the method for entering data. Users can type, select, click, swipe, touch, or speak to enter information. 

Question/answer dialogues: By using VoiceXML as an intelligent API, users can speak and listen to a question/answer-style conversation that produces a string of characters, which are returned to the underlying application. VoiceXML can also handle conversations using text messages. 

Conversational-style user-computer dialogues: Chatbots are trained using machine learning to recognize the intentions of users from spoken words and texts and provide the underlying app with the corresponding commands and parameters. Software agents based on these technologies use short, natural conversations through smart speakers. 

I predict we’ll soon see UIMSs that manage the presenting of information to users and collect user-supplied data. 

The UIMS To-Do List

These UIMSs should be able to do the following:

  1. Select the presentation format and style best suited for the user and enable the most convenient technique for entering information based on user preferences, usage history, environmental considerations, and available devices.
  2. Incorporate state-of-the-art techniques and designs.
  3. Use standard APIs for transmitting information among user interface components and the back-end applications.
  4. Use micro-services for providing specialized functions, including automatic speech recognition (ASR), text to speech (TTS), dialogue management, vision, orientation, and location, while supporting new micro-services such as emotion detection and lip reading as they become available.
  5. Support the gradual evolution of users from novices to experts as they become more proficient with the UIMS.
  6. Provide consistency in user interface style across different user interface modes and platforms, so users can apply their knowledge of one user interface to another.

A major trend in app development today could prove a stumbling block to UIMSs: using the APIs of micro-services within applications. While this enables a wide variety of new and useful applications, the applications themselves are bound to the micro-services, which makes it difficult to update a micro-service or replace it with one from another vendor. Using micro-services in this way will entangle the user interface with the computational logic of applications. This is counter to the philosophy of having a UIMS isolate the user interface from computational logic.

And UIMSs will by necessity affect the role of user interface designers, who will specify the general type of dialogue (e.g., question/answer vs. form fill-in, visual vs. verbal, single modal vs. multimodal, etc.) and then leave most of the detailed design to the UIMS software that applies well-established UI rules and guidelines. 

Just as app designers avoid the details of data management using DBMSs, they can avoid many details of UIs using UIMSs. Users will benefit from the consistency of UIs across applications that use the same UIMS, as well as the quality of user interfaces implemented using state-of-the-art rules and guidelines. 

Developers should spend their time specifying the rules, algorithms, and computational logic for applications rather than get bogged down in the details of user interfaces. Rather than specify detailed prompts with grammars, prosody, volume, and voice characteristics, application designers should simply specify a message for presentation to the user and let the UIMS determine how the message should be presented. 

James A. Larson is the program chair of SpeechTEK 2019. He can be reached at jlarson@infotoday.com.

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