With the iPad’s imminent release and growing adoption of touchscreen smartphones, it’s only a matter of time before natural user interfaces become a mainstream IT requirement.

Useful, usable and desirable applications:
I’ve been spending some time learning about enterprises that are evolving their existing web applications for devices other than a personal computer.  Several increasingly related trends are behind this evolution.  First, enterprises are adopting Web 2.0 design and interaction practices – yes Web 2.0 is still an investment area for enterprises.  Second, these enterprises are being pushed by their users, and their competitors, to expose enterprise applications to mobile devices.  Third, enterprises are beginning to expand social interactivity and communications enablement inside of their web applications.  Finally, enterprises are beginning to expose their web application content to third party sites by exposing APIs to their enterprise web applications.  This is being done in order to deliver content to users where users are versus expecting users will always end up on the enterprise website.  The central driver behind these four trends is, not surprisingly, to deliver better user experiences.  However, “better” only tells half the story.  After reading Forrester analyst Mike Gualtieri’s post about user experience, I realized that “better” really means experiences that are useful, usable and desirable.

Growing interest in natural user interfaces:
As serendipity would have it, Forrester’s Jeffrey Hammond just wrote about natural user interfaces, which absolutely embody useful, usable and desirable user experiences.  Forrester and Dr. Dobbs Developer survey conducted in 3Q09 suggest that multi-touch/natural user interfaces weren’t exactly at the top of the list of emerging trends that respondents were interested in. However, “Mobile Apps”, “RIAs” and “Social Networking Apps” are very much related to natural user interfaces.  An enterprise building out an RIA or social networking application has to consider how that application will behave on a mobile device.  As such, the interest in natural user interfaces is likely understated and growing every day.

Jeffrey goes on to write:

“We’ve had a few inquires this quarter into NUIs, and whether the time is right to start firing up R&D efforts within large application development shops. In general, I think the answer is “Yes” when it comes to multi-touch, not just because of Mobile devices like iPhone and Android phones, but also because of the native capabilities built into .NET 4.0. As organizations refresh PCs and move toward Windows 7 and .NET 4.0, the number of multi-touch ready devices is about to increase dramatically.”

Next, add Walt Mossberg’s review of the iPad:

“I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop. It could even help, eventually, to propel the finger-driven, multitouch user interface ahead of the mouse-driven interface that has prevailed for decades.”

If the iPad can live up to even half of its hype, enterprises will soon begin to target it as they have the iPhone and iPod. For instance, here’s a great iPhone application from USAA which lets users deposit checks by taking a picture of the check.  Appcelerator just released mobile developer survey data that continues to show interest in building applications for devices that enable natural user interfaces, such as the iPad, iPhone and Android platform.

Broad reach or highly tailored experience:
One of the biggest challenges that enterprises face in building useful, usable and desirable user experiences is selecting the device to design for.  An application that receives rave reviews from iPad users won’t necessarily run on an Android device or a Blackberry.  Open source solutions from PhoneGap, Appcelerator and Rhomobile seek to address this issue by insulating developers and applications from the underlying mobile device the application will run on.  It remains to be seen whether enterprises will select the device agnostic or native device route when designing new application experiences.  The former approach allows the enterprise to reach a larger customer base than the latter approach does; a very important consideration when facing constrained IT budgets. If the mobile device and operating system race ends in a two-horse race between iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android, we may well see enterprises targeting each with native applications.  However, today, the Blackberry and Symbian platforms are too large to ignore. In any case, now would be a good time for IT departments to begin proof of concepts to consider whether a device agnostic or native device application is appropriate for the needs of the business and its end users.

As a user, I can’t help but get excited about these new user experiences. Oh, and I still want flying cars.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”