The role of texting (and talking) in the future of UI

Kyle Vanhemert, for Wired:

Last December, in a blog post on Chinese app trends, designer and engineer Dan Grover announced the emergence of “chat as a universal UI.” Grover had moved from San Francisco to Guangzhou to work as a product manager for popular messaging app WeChat and noted the advent of “official accounts” for brands and public figures on the service. “Think SmarterChild but for banks, phone companies, blogs, hospitals, malls, and government agencies,” he explained, likening the accounts to the friendly AIM bot of yore. Today’s WeChat users ask their bank about their balance much like you and I once pestered SmarterChild for movie times.

WeChat official accounts don’t merely let users “connect” with a company or service in the same sense that Twitter lets users “connect” with Velveeta. The accounts provide utility that the rest of the smartphone-using world tends to compartmentalize into apps. As Benedict Evans, mobile guru at a16z, has noted, a WeChat user can “send money, order a cab, book a restaurant or track and manage an ecommerce order, all within one social app.”

Just as mechanical pushbuttons were an abstraction between users and the engines that ran things behind the scenes, user interfaces are an abstraction of interaction. Sometimes you need to see a lot of complex actions at the same time, presented in a way that’s easy to consume. But the rest of the time maybe all you need to do, instead of logging into something and looking for something to type in or tap on, is to ask a question: hey, remind me, when did I buy that hovercraft, and how much was it? A sufficiently advanced interface moves toward being entirely transparent, until it’s nothing more than an extension to conversation. The genie in the bottle comes to mind.