Fast Company Magazine: 14 Of The Year’s Best Ideas In Interface Design

Nowadays, our gadgets meld seamlessly into our lives straight out of the box. Once charged up, we can make sense of them after a few minutes of exploratory button-pushing. The horror of VCR programming seems like a faint memory, thanks in large part to Steve Jobs and Apple, whose intuitive user interfaces (UIs) have informed everything from thermostats to social media sites. And of course, the iPad has spawned a half a million apps, the more outstanding of which are included in this year’s list.

All of the designs profiled here share an ease of use–the hallmark of good UIs. But a new theme has surfaced: wondrous fun. From generative music and art apps to cubes that develop your spatial skills, many of these products combine the UIs more common to video games with mind-challenging play. Yep, some of this year’s best designs trick you into learning–lending credence to the value of gaming as an educational tool.

Nest Thermostat

The Nest thermostat’s intuitive interface and game-changing potential aren’t a surprise: It was created by Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who conceived the iPod and oversaw 18 generations of the revolutionary MP3 player.

IPhone 4S’s Siri

On October 4, we, like everyone else marginally interested in tech, waited with baited breath for the historic unveiling of the iPhone 5. What we got instead was the iPhone 4S, with an audio interface called Siri, a virtual personal assistant for those of us who can’t afford a real one–and a first step toward a new breed of UIs.

Business Model Toolbox app

The Business Model Toolbox is the companion app to the Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s popular book, Business Model Generation. Alongside the book, it promises to give “visionaries, game changers, and challengers” everything they need to turn an idea into a tangible business. At its core is the Business Model Canvas–a simple and visually elegant template that breaks a business model into 12 predefined revenue and cost mechanisms.

Little Printer

Love the tactility of newspapers but loathe the lugging them around? Good news: The broadsheet of the future may be the size of a receipt that you print at home. That’s what BERG, the London-based design consultancy, is banking on with its Little Printer–a palm-sized, cube-shaped, cloud-powered thermal printer that spits out a personalized mini-newspaper. You curate what you want to “publish” via a smartphone app. “What’s great about paper is that it’s made for sharing,” Matt Web, BERG’s CEO, told Co.Design. “You can scribble on a puzzle and give it to a friend, or stick birthday reminders up on the fridge for your family to see. Paper is basically a technology tailor-made for a home full of people.”

Facebook’s Timeline

In rolling out Timeline, Facebook proved that interfaces aren’t always just about functionality; they can help users organize and display memories. Here Timeline designers Nick Felton and Joey Flynn reveal the lessons they learned in constructing Facebook’s new scrapbook feature.

Planetary music app

Created by data artists Bloom Studio, Planetaryis a free iPad app that analyzes your iTunes music library and visualizes it as a 3-D galaxy, in which artists become stars that form constellations, albums are planets orbiting those stars, and individual tracks are moons that spin around the planets.

Sifteo Cubes

These little cubes turn 2-D gaming into 3-D motion-aware blocks that can be tilted, jostled, rotated, and clicked to play a variety of games–all in the service of “intelligent play,” what Sifteocalls the acting of having fun while sharpening your spatial-reasoning skills.

Björk’s Biophilia App

For her new album, perennial provocateur Björk enlisted Scott Snibbe (creator of the OscilloScoop) to make 10 interactive music apps–one for each song. Here, John Pavlus interviews Snibbe about the experiment.

Google+

How did Google+ go from zero users to 20 million virtually overnight? By fixing some common problems in social media sites. Read more about the designers’ approach here.

Shuu.sh

A Twitter feed can feel like a student seminar, in which the overeager students lap up all the discussion time, drowning out the less frequent (but no less considered) remarks of the diffident participants. The UI geniuses at BERG have developed a way to make sure you don’t miss a comment: Shuu.sh, a Twitter interface that visually reformats your feed so that infrequent tweeters are displayed in big type. Tweet hogs are shrunk down to micro-visibility.

“The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore”

Books should provide children with a much-needed respite from TV and computer screens, right? But with its well-written storyline and captivating animation, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” could be the book-app exception to the rule. The story’s author, William Joyce, shows off his pedigree as a former Pixar illustrator with a tale that could be read aloud or viewed as a standalone animated film.

WURM

A “generative art app,” WURM combines your screen taps and swipes with algorithms to create gorgeous visual patterns based on pied wormlike shapes.

PEEL

Cable interfaces are slow, wonky, and ugly. Leave it to Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject to design a solution: Peel, a cute fruit-shaped doodad that delivers programming schedules to your smartphone in a delightfully clean interface.

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