The revolving door that takes you into The Futures Company offices in London has just been replaced after five months out of action. You needed to push the old doors; the new ones are automatic (and stop the instant you touch them). Watching people trying to unlearn their old behaviours and apply new ones, I’ve been wondering if someone in the building is carrying out an experiment to see how quickly people are able to change learned habits in the absence of visual cues.

And this thought was partly prompted by a recent post by Alex Pang on the fad of the invisible interface. He writes: I think that when it comes to interacting with the world or with information at a level above randomly waving your arms and legs around, there’s no such thing as an intuitive gesture that could be used by digital devices or wearables to trigger some action.

And he quotes the director and designer Timo Arnall, who has amassed a splendid collection of faddish cuttings on the notion that “the best design is invisible”. Timo’s long post is worth reading in full, but he raises fundamental questions about the role of interface in our relationship with technologies:

Invisible design propagates the myth that technology will ‘disappear’ or ‘just get out of the way’ rather than addressing the qualities of interface technologies that can make them difficult or delightful. … we’ve discovered that it takes a lot of work to make sense of the technologies as design materials. So it’s not useful to say that UI is ‘disappearing’ into sensing, algorithms and tangible interfaces, when we don’t fully understand them as UI yet.

Of course, there’s a famous book by Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer that tends to get referenced in this discussion. But that wasn’t what Norman meant: he meant that the complexity of products becomes less visible to the user as the technology becomes more mature. (We no longer need to know how to repair our cars to drive them, for example). In fact Norman’s earlier book, The Design of Everyday Things, is a better reference point. In that, he argues that a device should show you what you need to do to make it work – the interface cues should be embedded in the design. If you wonder what this means in practice, think about stepping into an unfamiliar shower and familiarising yourself with the faucets: on, off? hotter, colder?

Good interface design isn’t about making the interface invisible. It’s about integrating it so it’s obvious.

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