Symbols as Universal User Interface

David Dupouy, Sensiva

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 9, 2001

From Stone Age humans drawing animals on cave walls to Egyptian hieroglyphs to company logos to modern advertisement, symbols are everywhere in terms of time and space. They have always been a preferred way to represent things and situations because they are so easy to remember. They are a form of language when a critical mass of people is able to recognize a set of them and understand their associated rules.

User interface designers have been using symbols too, such as icons to represent files or other entities. Generally used as informative objects, they are unidirectional: from the machine to the user.

We are now looking the other way around and involve the user to draw symbols in order to perform actions, instead of just looking at them as identifiers. The primary goal is not to recognize handwriting and transform it into text, but to transform it into immediate actions. Using a mouse, a pen, or any other pointing device, the user draws a "W" to start their word processor, an "e" to automatically login their secure web-based email service, a "T" to translate some selected text into whatever language available, an "S" to save, etc.

Keyboard shortcuts are good, but they are reserved to technically oriented people, or to people who are willing to significant spend time and efforts to learn them. Except a few keyboard shortcuts, they are not really consistent from an application to another, and even less when used from an operating system to another, especially handheld devices where, most of the time, there is no room for a keyboard.

We will see how symbols, or gestures, when implemented with a universality mindset, not only simplify but also unify inconsistent applications and devices, wired and wireless alike. They are extremely fast to execute, and they take zero real estate on screen as symbols are erased as soon as the command is performed. Additionally to an amazing gain in productivity (easier and faster to draw a "Z" to zoom everywhere than to remember and hit Ctrl+Shift+F12 hotkey in one application and Shift+F3 in another), we will see how people use them on an everyday basis, in numerous regions of the world where the needs are different.

Symbols solve two major issues of usability: simplicity and uniformity.

David Dupouy is CEO of Sensiva, Inc., in Palo Alto, CA. Sensiva is focused on user interaction and provides software that makes the experience simpler and faster, with offices in California, Japan, and Europe. Sensiva licenses symbol and handwriting recognition technology to such companies as Sony, NEC, Synaptics, Casio, and more, and sells products directly to end users. David Dupouy created the first version of the company's flagship product and owns a US patent. He graduated from the Institut Universitaire de Technologie at Cachan, France, in Electrical Engineering. He is a piano player and enjoys ballroom dancing. He is on the board of advisors of a customer relationship management (CRM) infrastructure corporation in the UK, and of an ASP infrastructure company in California.

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