Multiple Identity software: the future of human-computer interface

byLuc Sala, Nov 9, 2012

Where are we going in software design; time to look beyond the front door and into the mind and mood.


As users of computers and other ICT-devices, we are not a constant, we change our focus, mood, mode all the time. Software development is slowly moving toward Multi-ID interfaces, a major trend for the coming years. The back-end of our software has developed enormously in last decades, but the door to the user remained basically the same with a window/desktop metaphor until recently, when we went for the horizontal with touch screen literally tilting the whole interface approach. The vertical, hierarchical approach has to make space for the peer level horizontal which effects not only the design of computers and the interface, but less obviously also the use and integration of computers in society, companies and education. The computer has finally been domesticated. Let the pro-touch folks cheer! Hail Jobs, the great liberator!
The horizontal and BYOD trend has opened the doors for data-access at all times, all levels, and everywhere, as well as allowing the little guys to be an equal to anyone when they sit around this new sign of true membership, the flat shield with the iconic and hypnotic apple.
Maybe too early, as a peer-level model is nice for social networks, but has some limitations in organizations. We as humans still have enough herd instinct to like to have a leader, a hierarchy that allows us to follow.

Equality is great, but the great social experiments of the last century didn't work out so well.

The touch interface directions clear, but will we all have a touch-screen before us on our desks too. Will this bring new ergonomic problems, the reaching-shoulder syndrome maybe? There lies a business opportunity for the manufacturers of screens, of course depending on how efficient touch screen can prove to be for traditional desktop work. Windows 8 is a step in this direction, though undoubtedly, it will take years before a truly efficient bridge between the vertical and the horizontal use modalities has been found.

The real question for software developers is not how diversified and adaptable, how secure and fraud proof we make the access door to whatever we store or hide in the data-mountains and mines of internet, cloud and centralized computing, but how to adapt it to the user and his or her multiplicity, different identities we have using all those ICT devices. We are not a single identity that can be profiled and catered for and merged into all applications. Using one Microsoft Passport identity for all services sounds great and not only Microsoft but also Google try to make you the one, identifiable (and credit card chargeable) and IP-traceable person. However, in practical life and when using our PC or smartphones, we are shifting identities and even personalities all the time, from work mode to family mode, from consumer to creator, from professional to sheepish to sexual. The dynamic complexity of the human psyche and its clearly non-digital, irrational, yet creative and inspiring inclinations is, as yet, not represented in the human-computer interface. One could, alas, also claim it's not truly understood at all levels. Since Plato's two horses (Phaedrus) we progressed to Jung's four modes of behaving, Myers-Briggs and Enneagram typologies, tinkering a bit with brain-scans to identify the physical modalities of mind, but failing to understand why we have trouble concentrating on a single task more than seconds at a time.
When looking at what people want and need while relating that to the more recent developments like the cloud, mobility everywhere, big data and social computing, we see some bridges and catering for user needs, but mostly technology push. Cloud services didn't arrive because we want our data elsewhere, but because the bandwidth, virtualization and internet access are there. For social computing one could state that this was a natural development; that the unexpected popularity of sms-and texting was market-driven; and that the customer and user were at the basis of the social networks.Nice, democracy in cyberspace! But how fast have we handed over our autonomy and the power to decide our identity and left it to the walled gardens of the likes of Facebook and Google? It feels like it's time to take back that autonomy. Perhaps more advanced multi-identity software could offer a way to get there?


Any real progress in software effectiveness must come from a better understanding of the mind-machine interface. The present shift from vertical to horizontal computing via touch interfaces and the use of apps to isolate activity sets offers a good opportunity to come up with new approaches here. We are at a threshold, the old Disc Operating System (DOS) is about to die, time to analyse the hurdles in actual usage. The growing need to honour our multiple identities on the smartphone in our pockets (an on the desktop), like simply switching between business and private mode, if well understood, opens a whole vista of software development.

We need new interfaces since the amount of data, number of services and storage options has become a digital swamp. The enormous choices we have in how and what we do with all this cyberspace content and freedom is just too much. This is not a technical question, but a human question. We have to deal with stimulation overload if we are not to drown in the sea of content or the mountains of data available. The cloud, mobility, virtualization, malware, saas and search engines have certainly changed the way we use our computers, on the desktop, as a client to servers and services and as a mobile device. We are even allowed to somewhat personalize our user interface which we (mostly without an opt-out) grant permission services like Google to do that for us. Their algorithms scan usage patterns and feed us what correlates best with the perceived identity.
In many cases that works fine, offering  ads and buttons of products and services that we might like to get search results preselected by the machine, helpful to a certain extent. The powers of the world, the banks, the police, the crime business, the secret services, the medical and insurance complexes also use these profiling techniques, with good and bad intentions and effects. Digital identity gets framed, mostly in unknown ways and in databanks we cannot access. One day we discover our total dependence, defined by those numbers in a computer. This representation however, does not honor who we really are. Most of the time these are static or slowly changing models of what this or that psychologist, statistician, government or search engine distils from what they can trace. Profiling, one of the real dangers of automated personality and usage analysis, has naturally become a science and business in itself.

Profiling is limiting and framing

It is now possible to look at pictures, movies and pinpoint character traits and potential behaviour, which is used in commercial applications, for security and by the government. I fear that, for many of us, the secret services of this world (and why not the credit assessment organizations and insurers) have already profiles made up. We are not aware of them and cannot change them if incorrect, but they are used for visa issuing, security checks etc. With these profiling techniques one goes far beyond simple models using all kinds of correspondences and psychological relationships, even esoteric ones like astrology. If Sagittarian people like Volvo cars more than BMW's, why waste advertising money pushing the wrong ads on them. Our birth dates are nearly public domain anyway. Combinations with zip-code and gender provide an interesting profile. Said profiles don't need to be correct, as long as they yield average profitable results. Services like Google are willing to go pretty deep in analyzing surfing habits, visiting patterns  to come up with and sell user profiles. However these analyses remain more or less stable , changing only gradually as usage changes.
In my view these approaches are effective BUT limited.  They usually assume we have only one constant identity, from which they slice off just a few bits. In the eyes of Google (or the software they use ) one can be totally different from the identity held by the tax-authorities, the judicial system. In fact, our representation in a myriad of databanks has many different and differently quantified selves, each covering limited aspects of what we really are or are projected to be.
The problem remains that the "profiled" identities are limited by the technology used, the information available to them, as well as the fact that we are not always the same or at least act or react the same. We can be in various modes: professional, family, recreation. In fact, we change mood and modes more often than clothes. Though unsanctioned, personal calls at work or privately interesting websites do happen, human nature is to shift attention and focus. And even with say work mode, there are activity, emotional and think modalities, even being in the different psychological sub-personalities because of circumstances or intent. In different modes we need different approaches, interfaces, routinely access different datasets, in fact we work from different mindsets with different characteristics, moods, levels of consciousness all the time.

The present software, certainly at the operating system and basic operations level and in the user interface, offers scant or no possibilities to deal with this. New apps do help, they offer personalised options to address problems or access software, but are still limited in offering true multi-ID environments. We can somewhat personalize our user interface, but changing the layout of our screen icons because we are in a different mode is certainly not done by just clicking on one button or because a sensor picks up a change in skin conductivity or frontal lobe activity in the brain.

The user is no constant

Software engineers tend to see users as  more or less constant, capable of choosing the software and services necessary. In fact, they see them with singular identities[, one personality, always the same] DELETE. Security profiling, actual behavior of people in crowds, already recognizes this, but your smartphone, tablet or desktop software doesn't acknowledge one identity. Here lies the great opportunity for software that acknowledges multiple aspects to individuals by offering a different user interface allowing easy shifting between them.
An easy trajectory? Actually, users already have found all kinds of tricks and methods to deal with this environment while the developers  pick up on this trend. Many people have two mobiles phones, so that one can switch between business and private with each billed separately. The multitude of picture, video and audio content  in mobile devices these days is usually also related to different identities. Many would like to classify, order, browse and access according to their identity-mode and activity of the moment, only accessing part of their whole databank. In the basic smartphone operation this is not easy. There is but one Gallery, with thousands of content items. Apps like VisR do cater for this. One can sort, select and classify pictures in different groups, allowing easy browsing and separating into groups (event related) of picture material.
> If one sees applications and content (on-device or in the cloud) as a database with multi-identity access and usage modalities, what is needed is a simple and universal access software mechanism that bring those applications and data to the front door (on screen, as icons or in cache) of the user. In 1991 in a book about Virtual Reality (with John Perry Barlow, now of the EFF, I outlined what I then called a personality engine as part of a computer. This would be hardware (like a fingerprint-scanner, all kinds of scan-devices, medical sensors) and software, aiming at optimizing in a dynamic way our interface with data and applications we use.This subsystem would identify our modalities (as a dynamic system) and change the user interface accordingly and dynamically. In such an approach, all personal and private information (your real identity data are rather sensitive) would be CONFIDENTIAL, not in the hands of or accessible by outsiders. This personality engine could be driven by the user's choices, chosen to be in variable modes with an adapted interface; accessing appropriate services and data. But why not have itworking autonomously on the basis of some AI algorithms and switch between the identity modes upon incoming signals or sensor inputs. In response to incoming calls or emails, the changes to the appropriate identity-modes could easily be made automatically.

As the operating systems don't really provide space for this kind of multi-identity (multi-id) or multiple persona (persona in Greek means mask) interface, an app or application layer may be needed. Modern touch screen devices can switch via simple icons or swipes to another mode. This offers relatively simple mechanism to change the interface compliant with the usage mode, but also to cater for different moods and mindstates.

Isn't it surprising that this need has not been widely addressed by the developers? Perhaps because limited psychological insight and as one hardly knows how our psyche works, switching between activity or mood modalities or subpersonalities is observed but not really explained.

Identities, how many are we?

The reason why the user is seen as a constant might have to do with the general idea that we know who we are, that our ego is our self, that I am who I am. We like to see ourselves as whole and one, ignoring that we are as some say, a bunch of egoís. The multi-ID software idea might seem unacceptable to the user at first as it feels like one has a split personality. Having more "personalities" or modalities of behaviour is usually seen as psychotic or pathological. Therefore, in order to fully accept and appropriately develop a multi-identity interface with more advanced differentiation and depth maybe we have to get some better understanding of our psyche and how it functions.
What identity are we talking about? We have a limited self-image, other see us in their perspective, there is a theoretical objective self image as well as many cyberselves. Which one offers the best route to design an effective identity gateway in the given situation? Apart from what the profiling algorithms of all the search engines or databases yield in information and some kind of identity appraisal or qualification, what is needed is some better understanding of how our psyche works, what identity models there are and what needs we want to satisfy.

Who do we think we are? Who are we inside (even to the level of what can be called soul or inner child) and in our outward behaviour or ego-mask(s), and should software differentiate not only between activity modes like home or work, but also address the multiple psychological (sub)identities and in what way? Should it be just nice and adapted, or is some critical stimulation or challenge necessary? Many questions, and this has to do with definitions of our selves or our I, our ego. Psychology and philosophy and these days neurologists have tried to come up with clear answers, but apart from many books, religions, therapies and half baked "science" we know very little. I never found a consistent and logical model of how I myself function, how to explain my different moods and modes so I developed some hypothetical explanations (see to at least understand a bit more how I function, but it's clear that we need better understanding of how we operate.
There are endless theories about how personalities and character traits are formed, but none really explains clearly why and how we behave the way we do and what we really want or need. The pyramid of needs of Maslow is one way to look at our needs, but is too hierarchical and not very specific as for what self actualization means in relation to trends like social networks and the externalization of our identity. His pyramid does help to identify human needs, especially the psychological ones, like security, love and esteem, but I have seen no software or systems analysis methods that uses Maslow's insights to create software that really covers those needs. Another way to analyze human needs is what the enneagram tells us about different modes, basically showing that people are different in their addiction to their most basic needs, like the need to know, the need to be right, the striving for perfection or drama, the need to act, to move, to conform, to bridge or to help. The mechanics of the enneagram give some idea about how we move from one type of behaviour to another, and is helpful in understanding how we change our behaviour and focus, and could be used in a smart AI user interface but the system doesn't allow for our shifting between complex subpersonality modes.

In order to develop adequate multi-identity interfaces and software, we have to accept that nearly all of us do have multiple behaviour modes because of how we developed, our education and experiences. These modes or subpersonalities may differ in many aspects, like intelligence, emotional quotient, social capabilities, health, sexual preferences, sense-modes (see-hear-touch), extroversion/introversion. To make it even more complex, in any given situation there are different levels of intent, focus and consciousness.

Too many different identities to handle on your smartphone? Of course, yet this is what we each have to deal with in real life and in our relationships with the people around us. Humans are pretty good at adapting to the different modes and identities of themselves and others, we shift, adapt, flex or run. Then why does most software assume a stable, dependable, and definitely not moody, user?

ICT has developed by assuming that we can bypass our multi-ID by working with limited, single-ID systems, but maybe itís time to wake up from that digital pipe-dream. Time to embrace our own multi-identity profiles, we can start identifying the more general categories of usage and catering for what they require. One can easily see categories like business and home, professional and recreational, relational and organizational. And is it not feasible to have one button or icon that would bring up all matters and data related to government matters, taxes and such; another that would give access to all pictures, emails and videos from our family as well as additional focus geared towards our holidays and travels, etc.? Refining this to the level of individual preferences, psychological profiles and our various identities is a further step which I see as the great challenge and opportunity to make computers really useful by becoming more personalized.

The new breed of personal devices offers  possibilities for interfaces that do a better job at multi-identity interfaces, even as we start with simple modalities. In my view, we need a broader perspective toward multi-identity user interfaces. I am a multi-ID person, why isnít my smartphone?

Luc Sala Nov 2012