Jacob Nielsen is probably the pre-eminent spokesman for research on web usability and much of what he says applies about equally well to other applications too.
Among his discussions is one labelled Usability in the Movies -- Top 10 Bloopers. Some excerpts:
From #3: "The 3D UI:"
Many user interfaces designed for the movies feature gestural input and 3D data visualizations. Immersive environments and fly-through navigation look good, and allow for more dramatic interaction than clicking on a linear list of 10 items. But, despite being a staple of computer conference demos for decades, 3D almost never makes it into shipping products. The reason? 2D works better than 3D for the vast majority of practical things that users want to do.
3D is for demos. 2D is for work.
From #7, "Star Trek's Talking Computer:"
The voice-operated computer in Star Trek is an even more egregious example of designing an audience interface rather than a user interface. Spoken commands and spoken responses make it easy for the audience to follow the action, but it's a very inefficient way of controlling a complex system.
In predictions about computing's future, voice interaction is a perennial favourite -- it probably even beats 3D, which is the other top contender for most over-hyped UI technology. While voice has its place, it's even less suitable than 3D for most everyday interactions because it's a less data-rich channel and it's harder to specify something in words than to choose it on a graphical display.
And from the Summary: "Do the Usability Bloopers Matter?"
In the film context, unrealistic usability is only to be expected. Still, I see two real problems with it:
- Research funding and management expectations are subtly biased by the incessant emphasis on unrealistic UI design such as voice, 3D, avatars, and AI. When you see something work as part of a coherent and exciting story, you start wanting it. You even start believing in it. After all, we've seen 3D and voice so often that we've developed an implicit belief in their usefulness.
- Users blame themselves when they can't use technology. This phenomenon is bad enough already; it's made worse by the prevalence of scenes in which people walk up to random computers and start using them immediately. We need people to start demanding easier design and blaming the technology when it's too hard to use. Movies make this change in attitudes more difficult.
So what does all this mean? It means that if you see a company making just about every interface mistake Nielsen lists, you have a right to ask whether they're insane, incompetent, or simply selling to a market which considers the interface the application of interest - and doesn't much care if that application then gets in the way of people who want to see through it to get at something boring like an Accounts Payable sub-system or document development toolset.
Bottom line, what's the right thing to do? consider google's primary search application your guide and remember that simpler is better, the whole Windows PC thing is simply a nuisance people have to work around to get to your application interface, and, above all take this final bit of advice from Nielsen:
Look at users and study users. No matter what you are doing, go and get hold of an actual real life end user and see what they do with the software.