This year's Geek Wire Summit in Seattle hosted a conversation between photographer Chad Copeland and the CEO of 3D Robotics Chris Anderson. While I didn't expect to come away from this panel discussion with anything related to user interface design, it turned out that a short discussion of automated vs. manual control of small helicopters made me think about interfaces a little differently.
Automated vs Manual Control of Drones
One of the main differences between the machines Copeland flies and the ones Anderson's company develops is automation. Where Copeland can use a complicated remote control for piloting a drone and creating photographs, Anderson's pilots use an app on their mobile device to set flight plans.
Copeland explained how often films rock climbers. Flying near rock formations, he has to be mindful not only of the people on the rock, but also of the ropes that keep the climbers safe. Because of his requirements, he said that he prefers to pilot his drones manually (and he uses some intense-looking gear to do so). Through his skill he is able to work with his controls to safely pilot a machine and create stunning photographs.
Anderson pointed out that you could not build an interface that would represent all the controls present on devices like the ones Copeland uses. But, just because you can't put the controls in the app doesn't mean that the drone doesn't need those inputs in order to fly. To streamline the interface and make it usable for new pilots, 3D Robotics has to add automation to their app and drone.
Automation is a Fundamental Part of Interface Design
To simplify the interface and make the controls for Anderson's drones usable, 3D Robotics had to remove inputs. In order to edit the interface, they had to automate actions behind-the-scenes. When trying to create minimal and intuitive interfaces, you will have to decide to give someone a choice to click or drag something, or do it for them.
For me, here is the takeaway from the GeekWire Summit and Anderson and Copeland's exchange: user interfaces are about balancing automation and manual control. This balance hinges on who your users are. If they are experts like Chad Copeland, then you can have a more complicated interface that gives more control, but sacrifices simplicity. If your users are new pilots, then you need to edit your interface to be as minimal as possible. Unfortunately, this editing can only done by automating processes, which will take even more engineering and design time.