Should everything be designed invisible?

An article, posted more than 4 years ago filed in , , , , , , , , , , & .

In an earlier post I wrote about invisible design and it might have seemed that I am a big proponent of invisible design. It is, however, important to distinguish between invisible design as a design approach where designery attributes are not being articulated and design where the sole purpose is to design experiences with no user interface at all. (Visible) user interfaces may actually play an important role in creating seemingly undesigned and invisible experiences by making them frustration- and stressless; invisible can be frustrating.

Invisible can be frustrating

The technology that powers the promised invisible interaction is not really “just not there”. To understand how something works it is sometimes good to reveal something about how it works, instead of hiding it away. Especially since every now and then, how well designed a system may be, ‘errors’ can occur. These errors may be technical errors, but also errors made unintentionally by unaware users using the system. This may be a user misplacing the temperature sensor close to a radiator, but could also be the user ignoring the privacy settings. Nothing is as frustrating as an invisible error.

Designing interactions

Interaction is communication in two ways. Interaction design is designing communication. The minimum of feedback most often not nothing. And don’t be too minimal either. My TV blinks just a small red light when the remote control sends something. But with a slow response, such as not showing the logo immediately when turning on or not changing the channel immediately when I order my TV to do so, the experience is still rather frustrating. Ideally of course the TV would do immediately what it is ordered to do, but technical limitations demand sometimes smart sub-optimal solutions. As user experience designers we are designing interactions and interactions go both ways.

Experiences are to be remembered

Are the experiences we are remembering the invisible experiences, the flawless experiences? Or are the things we remember the experiences that did something more? Do you remember the always funny invisible classmate? Of course not, that guy or girl was visible! Sometimes being unobtrusive is a big advantage, but creating a flawless but still remarkable experience might entail a bit more than just being invisible. Tools are culture.

Invisible design is integrated design

Simply bashing invisible design is stupid. But so is interpreting invisible design as simply creating #NoUI’s. Invisible design is about not unnecessarily articulating design elements. Instead a designer should create experiences that provide the right feedback and control to the end-user at the right times (which may sometimes involve quite some design-iterations to figure out). It may be smart, it may be tactile, it may be unobtrusive. Design is not good because it is just not there, it is good when not the design is noted, but its usefulness, its playfulness, in the most frustration-less, disruption-less and stress-less way.

Further reading

A very considerate read on this topic has been written by ubiquitous computing expert Timo Arnall (note: Ubiquitous computing was the promise of invisible design in the nineties of previous century): he says clearly no to invisible design: systems fail sometimes, feedback then lacks and more reasons. Spreading some type of culture may be important too.

From the Ubicomp field, a related term ‘Calm Computing’ was proposed, read more about Calm Computing in this paper from 1995 by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown.

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