From User Interface Design to Virtual Product Design

User interface design is very important for any company who has virtual products, but when more and more people access virtual products through more and more different user interfaces it becomes increasingly important to not design the entire virtual product. Not just the user interfaces.

Not just the user interface

I have been researching how different psychological theories can inform and improve virtual product development. One important idea is the idea of object permanence. Object permanence is a principle from Jean Piaget’s psychology. It describes how children learn that objects continue to exist when they are out of sight (to put it very simply)

The reason this is interesting is that it points to something quite fundamental (if you ask me). Object permanence is a quality of the user interface, but also between user interfaces. When we leave something in a system, like a document in a filing cabinet, we expect it to be the same place when we return to it. We also expect object permanence when it comes to virtual products. A brilliant example of a company built entirely around object permanence is dropbox. When you leave a file in your dropbox it is there in exactly the condition you left it when you return regardless of the device you use to access it.

An example of the difference between when it works and it doesn’t is Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is HBOs experimental online movie streaming competitor to Netflix. When you see a movie on Netflix on your iPad and pause it only later to resume it on your playstation you will find it paused in the same place at the front of your screen. HBO nordic also allows you to watch movies and episodes. But every time you return you have to relocate the content you wanted. You have to find the series you were watching, click to the season, find the episode and then try to find where you left off manually.

Designing in a virtual world
What we need to remember is that, even though the virtual world does not have the same constraints as the physical world, we bring with us the expectations of these very same constraints. This is why we need to stage the virtual products in accordance with our expectations and therefore implement some of the same features that we would find in the physical world. The more the user interfaces live up to our expectations the more natural they feel.

So, what we can learn from this is that we have to broaden our view towards designing a virtual product that has multiple user interfaces instead of just one user interface in multiple versions. We have to think of the product as the same, but accessed from different windows into the virtual world.