In the world of information management, when we say "interface" we are almost always describing the technology that enables the people facing those computer screens to interact with raw data or prepared information. A good interface design helps a technology user get friendly with data, but not necessarily with other users, which is why it's more accurate to describe most interfaces as user-data interfaces.
A division of user labor has historically existed between data management, which focused on aspects such as data integrity and data quality, and business intelligence, which focused on aspects such as data analysis and data visualization. User-data interfaces are involved in nearly every stage of data's journey throughout the organization, from its binary birth out of a primordial sea of 1s and 0s, to when its bits and bytes come of age by the paradise of the dashboard lights. But the most frequently discussed user is the end user - the person perceived to be at the end point of all the data management and BI user tasks and system processes.
As subject matter expert Donald Farmer has noted, "There are no end users anymore. With good business intelligence, and especially with newer business discovery or self-service tools, no user is at the end of anything. Every user is the start of something new." Or, as pondered in "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce, "His producers are they not his consumers?" The end of the end user is also the end of the specialist user who only does data management or BI. Every user is now involved in aspects of both data management and BI - even if, as is often the case with data silos, the user is working with what they consider to be their own private data.
Although I agree with Farmer (and Joyce) that data's journey never really ends, most user-data interfaces fail to provide any insight into the journey itself. They focus instead on a temporary rest stop on the computer screen of the current user - who is blissfully ignorant of all the other people involved in helping data reach this point in its journey.
For example, when we are viewing a report, we are only viewing its data. What about the business analyst who prepared it, the data steward who verified its quality, the technical architect who designed the database it came from, and the data entry clerk (or customer using a Web-based interface) who created the data? Where are those users on our computer screen? Why are we the only user we see in the user-data interface?
Sometimes we see the computer as a mirror reflecting our own technological image. We organize our desktop, our applications, our preferences. We polish the mirror until it reflects the digital version of ourselves that we want to project to the world. This reflection is our avatar, it's how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us. Once we have perfected our technological mirror image, we step through the looking glass and use technology and data to interact with other people. Most of these interactions are not direct. They are more likely between our avatar and the avatars or data of others. Most of these interactions are not in real time. Email is the easiest example of that kind of interaction. But even near real-time interactions such as instant messages, text messages and social networking status updates are disembodied, impersonal exchanges between people and data from other people. These interactions are still impersonal even when accompanied by people's avatar images.
Social media is often described by many, myself included, as a great tool for improving the communication and collaboration among people. However, the irony of social media and social networking is that it seems to promote anti-social behavior by encouraging users to interface more with technology and data, and less with other people.
Chris Brogan, author and speaker on business communications and technologies topics, once described the ethos of social media using the Zulu greeting "Sawubona," which translates as "I see you," meaning, he explained, "I know that you're there and I acknowledge you as another person." The Zulu response is "Ngikhona," which translates as "I am here."
A computer screen is a graphical user interface, usually abbreviated GUI and pronounced "gooey" - an interface designed to facilitate interaction between people and data through technology. But that ignores the people involved in the process that brought that data to us.
Instead of a better GUI, what we really need is a better interconnected user interface, abbreviated ICUI and pronounced "I-See-You-ey," which would be an interface designed to facilitate the interactions between people. It would be an interface for bringing people together around data, through technology, but would also be capable of combining Sawubona and Ngikhona - an interface that says, "I see that you are here."
Jim Harris is an independent consultant, speaker and freelance writer. He is blogger-in-chief at Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality, a blog offering a vendor-neutral perspective on data quality and related disciplines. Click here to follow him on Twitter, where he is very active. And listen to him here on OCDQ Radio.