Why interfaces will be procedural

Michael Herf
August, 2001


I'd like to talk for a moment about next-generation interface, mostly as regards visual style, technology, and interaction capabilities.

I believe that next-generation visuals for computer interfaces will be generated by flexible computer programs (procedures) rather than painstaking pixel-based editing and layout that we use today.

This trend is very apparent, very necessary, and yet very much ignored by many industry leaders.

I'd like to name several reasons contributing to my point, and then I'd like to explain it:

  1. Animation enhances interactivity, and it is best generated by a computer, not frame-by-frame by a human. Some interactive "spaces" are simply too large to be hand-animated. This animation should include more than simple movement of pre-rendered artwork.

  2. Resolution Independence is important as we get a larger variety of devices and, even on the desktop, a wider variation in screen resolutions. Fixed-resolution layouts will require increasingly more work to be scalable.

  3. Design flexibility for dynamic content and dynamic content is very small currently. Most dynamic pages (in HTML) follow a very strict layout, even if the content plugs in dynamically.

Procedural interface is best exhibited currently by Macromedia Flash, as it possesses many of these attributes, albeit with a limited visual palette. Certainly, Postscript is the precursor in the vector world. Visually, some of the strongest examples are After Effects and similar compositing applications.

Consistent interface, however, requires a certain attention to behavior and detail that is missing from all these systems, however. I've seen 500 different scrollbars in Flash, and none of them worked as well as the one on the Mac.

Still, that's partially a technology problem, partially a focus problem, and partially a maturity problem.

Important attributes of procedural UI (as I know them now) include the following:

Why does anyone need this?

Existing interfaces are technologically far behind the state of the art for animated (interactive) experiences. But because of certain details that are very strict in user interface, we haven't seen a great deal of interactive richness in user interface so far. The space that is 3-D gaming (including the interfaces found in games) will converge with desktop interface in the future, because the capabilities are there.

However, if we're to see this kind of richness in a day-to-day sense, it must be approached with some of the attention to detail that has gone into existing interfaces (this is more than you think.) However, with the right technology underpinnings, these old metaphors can be extended to new technology and faster processors easily.