Most of us are old enough to remember the days before internet ubiquity. My primary school self, for example, used a trusty Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM to help with homework projects – usually over the sound of a parent marvelling at how easy kids these days have it. (“Back when I was at school, we had to go all the way to a library and take out a book…”)
Even fifteen years ago, when the internet could be accessed through a miraculous ethernet cable, it would still take some time to navigate the wild web and find relevant content. It is easy to forget just how short a time ago that was.
Today, the commonplace smartphone you carry in the palm of your hand holds the answer to all your questions. You just tap and talk, and Siri does the rest. If you stop to think about it, you know that somewhere, there is a complex series of processes happening to make that instant gratification possible. But the real wonder is that you never have to stop to think about it. Those processes just work. They are invisible, and in truth, we all like them that way.
Don’t Make Me Think
It was Steve Krug who first popularised the phrase, “Don’t make me think“, in his book of the same name. Although published in 2000 – an age ago in the fast-paced world of UX, Krug’s book on usability is still used by designers to this day.
Krug was not the first to sponsor simplicity, and he certainly will not be the last. In the 1970s, Dieter Rams identified his timeless, and now canonical, 10 principles of good design. Therein, he states that “Good design involves as little design as possible.”
Looking at centuries before that, the Occam’s Razor principle taught us that simple is best and that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. That, in itself, is thought to have been informed by Aristotle, who observed that, “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.”
The point is this: the admiration of simplicity, and the desire to achieve it in our daily lives, is far from a modern design trend. Human beings have an age-old love affair with making things simple. It should come as no surprise, then, that technology and the interfaces through which we interact with it are evolving from efficient to invisible.
The Rise of Invisible Design
When we talk about ‘invisible design’, we are just talking about design that is unobtrusive to the point of elegance. This design does not draw attention to itself. It is there to be used and enjoyed, not to be looked at. Importantly, it allows users to achieve their goals with minimal effort, maximum efficiency.
As internet users and as product consumers, we have all become accustomed to this invisible, intuitive design. The proof of that is all around you. Ask yourself when you last had to read a technical instruction manual to get an app up and running. Or ask yourself when you last encountered a website that you did not know how to navigate.
Digital has become predictable. It has become consistent. For the everyday user, digital has become streamlined, standardised, and drastically simplified. While you were not looking, invisible design crept up all around you, simplifying your life in subtle shades of speed and fluency.
The Transition to Invisible Experiences
The phrase ‘invisible design’ does not do justice to the immersive experiences we enjoy today. When we think of design, we are still inclined to think of experiences centred on physical objects and elements. But what about design operating in less tangible spaces? What about design experiences centred on the fabric of digital information, and on immaterial processes and actions?
Design is no longer exclusive to what you can see and feel. Increasingly, design is about entwining the threads of technology, information and data into the seams of our day to day activities. And it is already doing it – albeit invisibly.
Siri can remind you to call your mum on her birthday. Alexa can flick the kettle on when you wake up in the morning. Your watch can tell you when you need to get up and stretch your legs. You have not thought about this because there is no need to. But rest assured it is is not thoughtless: these are all beautifully designed invisible experiences.
Democratising the Use of Technology
Speaking about invisible experiences without talking about voice is impossible. Voice is not a new UX direction – it is the next natural progression for the way we interact with technology. Voice is an intrinsically intuitive interface and one that democratises devices.
We have always relied on intermediaries to access technology – whether it is a control, a mouse, or a touchscreen. As technology has evolved, the intermediary tools that we use have advanced to reduce friction, and get the job done quicker and easier. And what could be quicker or easier than voice?
We learn to talk before we get to type. It feels more natural, and, as such, talking to our tech creates experiences that feel friendly rather than detached. We interpret the source of speech as human, and so when we speak to a device, we are tapping into effortless instincts that simply can’t compare to a pixel-based UI. In terms of technology and our use of it, voice UI is perhaps both our oldest and our newest interface.
AI as the New UI
The newest generation will grow up in a world where invisible UIs are the norm. Indeed, the change has already begun. According to Gartner, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. And according to Salesforce, 57% of consumers expect voice-activated smart assistants to have a major or moderate impact on their daily lives by 2020.
We are getting used to chatting to the digital personal assistants that sit in our pockets, and their novelty status is settling into normality. These friendly assistants – Alexa, Cortana, Google Home, Siri – require no user interface. They present no access barriers and lack visual design elements. Make no mistake about it: that design absence is a design choice.
As users, we are both impatient and intolerant. And, spoilt as it sounds, typing is a chore. You cannot do it while you are driving, or while your hands are full, or while your phone is out of arm’s reach. Talking, on the contrary, is something you can do almost anytime, anyplace, anywhere. You can speak at 150 words per minute, versus typing 40 per minute.
With the speed and accessibility it offers users, AI is becoming the new UI.
A Frictionless Future?
Invisible design became the standard swiftly and subtly, and now invisible interfaces are on the rise. But even voice UIs require user steps and can cause friction. Try talking to Siri when you are brushing your teeth, or if you have a speech impediment, for example.
UX design often mimics nature in its elimination of the ineffectual and the unnecessary. But if voice itself is a flawed intermediary with room for improvement, then what comes next?
Potentially, the next step is for UIs to go from invisible to truly frictionless. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is working on direct brain interfaces that let you navigate technology straight from thought. And he is not the only one hot on the heels of mind UI: Elon Musk is already developing brain-machine interfaces that connect humans and computers seamlessly.
Clumsy interfaces inhibit users. As design gets increasingly elegant, we are losing more and more elements that once facilitated our access to technology. The evolution of invisible design towards the invisible interface is only the start. Intermediaries are being squeezed out.
Intuitive has become invisible, invisible is becoming device-less, and device-less is becoming seamless.
In terms of UX, “Don’t make me think”, may no longer be enough. “Don’t make me do” is next.