NoUI and the danger of invisible design
Product designers are hiding the workings of the system as they try to create a better user experience. Users are becoming increasingly divorced from their actions. Is there a danger here? Why should designers counteract this and can we be smarter without sacrificing simplicity?
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.” HAL to Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What’s the problem with the User Interface?
As a designer, I spend most of my day planning out and creating ‘user experiences’ for the screen. I love designing dashboards, pixel perfect icons, and refining typography. Coming from a graphic design background, these things are second nature to me. I love the purely visual.
“The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job… I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.” Donald Norman in 1990.
I’m far too tied to the screen in my design process and more worryingly, my thought. The power of the pixel is overwhelming. The constraints of the screen is comforting, like looking through a small window on the world. It can make a designer unadventurous.
This shortsightedness in digital designers is understandable. How are we to create a list based system without UI? Isn’t the concept of a digital list intrinsically UI based? Even a paper list is symbol based and depends on visual norms. Or does it? I’m trying to come to terms with this question.
Stop stealing our pixels man
It feels like I’m stepping into a conceptual minefield when I invoke the terms ‘Invisible Design’, ‘NoUI’, and ‘Seamless Design’. There has always been an undercurrent of the ‘design needs to be experienced not seen’.
These phrases get designers frothing at the mouth as they wonder is their livelihood endangered. Yet Andy Goodman, who coined the phrase ‘ZeroUI’, says that this it is more of a provocation than a strict dogma.
NoUI concept might be pushing designers to be either a NoUI evangelist or a Pixel traditionalist
Golden Krishna has become the poster/whipping boy of the “NoUI is best” debate. in his book, The Best Interface is No Interface, he proposes that the visible user interface is redundant. He presents his argument in a very simple and direct way. Krishna is not afraid of the hoards of angry developers and designers. Golden is smart and his examples such as Twitter tied to car dashboard are hilarious and frightening. His philosophy is thought provoking. He’s also a good story teller.
But Krishna’s and his followers of his NoUI concept might be pushing designers to be either a NoUI evangelist or a Pixel traditionalist. While I’ve followed Krishna’s philosophy and concept, it can be all or nothing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show how to apply his thesis to practical solutions.
“It’s about fixing solutions, not filling up screens” Golden Krishna. Yes, this is true. The old Bolshevik statement that machines are there to serve us and not enslave us is truer than ever. But ridding ourselves of design artefacts might keep us enslaved.
Even though I disagree with him on a few matters, these arguments have forced me to reinterpret the way I think about digital products.
As Scott Berkun says, “simplicity is a highly desired thing. No sane person wakes up and says ‘Dear god I hope each of my interactions with machines today is complex and overwhelming! Praise the lord of complexity’.”
Sending a phone call to my father first class
I slot a small black box into the base of the phone. Then pick the receiver up and press a button labelled ‘Listen now.’
My father is talking. I finish listening and press a button labelled ‘Talk now’ and talk for a few minutes, answering my father’s questions.
Putting down the phone receiver, I remove the black box I slotted in previously, placing it in an envelope.
I take a walk and post the envelope to my father on the other side of the country. I wait for a reply.
Loss of all control
Loss of all controlSending a phone call through the post is a ridiculous alternative history and illustrates my issue with No UI and seamless design. The loss of tactile experience is an issue which is highly important. Touch and experience will give us an understanding that we are controlling something which has an effect on the space around us. When we press a button, we are aware that an action will take place. When the effects of the action and the action is hidden, the user might not understand that something is occurring.
The mobile phone, while small in the hand is a huge and mysterious beast conceptually.
Matt Ratto says that “by removing our knowledge of the glue that holds the systems that make up the infrastructure together, it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, to begin to understand how we are constructed as subjects, what types of systems are brought into place (legal, technical, social, etc.) and where the possibilities for transformation exist.”
The mobile phone, while small in the hand is a huge and mysterious beast conceptually. The users of these devices are already disempowered, alienated and lack true ownership of what they hold.
There are numerous examples of situations where you can’t do away with the user interface. Think about airplane cockpits. Information is visible for a reason. Would you fully trust a computer to take over command of a plane completely, without recourse to some visual aids? It would be absurd to think that we could do away with gauges in a nuclear power plant. The computer can take over many responsibilities, do calculations on our behalf and manage the system without the controller being present, but what happens when things go wrong? Humans need to access information in a visible way in whatever form is best.
I like to think of it as maids and butlers going about their business below stairs.
In a brilliant post by Tim Arnell, someone who really gets to the crux of the matter, he says “Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materialityBen Moss says that “one weakness of a conversational UX is that we don’t trust AI. Trust is a core value of any successful user experience. Connecting on an emotional level is the ultimate tool for most design processes; one of the reasons the term “UX” has outgrown “UI” is that the former implies empathy, the latter implies mere utility. Whether it’s a Luddite’s aversion to new technology or too many ‘80s sci-fi movies, we always suspect an ulterior motive. As Ripley discovered, behind every Bishop there’s a Weyland-Yutani.”
If everything is taken away from the user, will the user wonder what has happened? Where is the receipt for what has happened? I like to think of it as maids and butlers going about their business below stairs. They tend to our every need. We quickly become unaware of this. How easily they begin to discover our secrets. When they decided to rebel, we are left helpless.
A little friction is a good thing
Striping products and tasks of extraneous UI is a good thing. Automating and being smarter is good for the user. There are too many products out there that are cluttered, with too many options, dumb by default and lacking a proper workflow.
Yet the downside could be a loss of control.
Andrew Grimes puts it best when he says that “Meta-moments can provide us with space to interpret, understand, and add meaning to our experiences. A little friction in our flow is all we need. A roadblock must be overcome. A speed bump must be negotiated. A diversion must be navigated. Each of these cases involves our attention in a thoughtful way. Our level of engagement deepens. We have an experience we can remember.”
So instead of ‘NoUI’, I’d like to propose ‘LessUI’. Yes, we really need more trashy terms. It’s simply about cutting out the unnecessary, leaving a trace of the primary action, a little feedback, a breadcrumb of experience, and ultimately a hint of humanity, so there is some accountability in the actions we all take.
I’m forcing myself to think outside the screen, without losing sight of it.
- Matthew Chalmers and Ian MacColl, Seamful and seamless design in ubiquitous computing
- Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer (MIT), Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms
- Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century
- Scott Berkun, The No UI debate is Rubbish
- Tim Arnell, No to No UI
- Andrew Grimes, Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by Design
- Amber Cartwright (AirBnB), Invisible Design Co-Designing with Machines