The Myth of Invisible Design
Let’s make products as visible as they need to be
One of the most persistent myths in design is that “the best designs are invisible.” There have even been books written about how to make your design more invisible, claiming the best User Interface (UI) is no UI. All of these books seem to spring from the Don’t Make Me Think school, where usability and efficiency are the highest values we can achieve in design.
While these values are certainly important, they’re not everything. Rather, products should be as visible as they need to be. There are thousands — nay, millions — of examples of beautiful, visible designs.
Let’s begin with a little design philosophy. When designers talk about invisibility, they’re (sometimes inadvertently) referring to Heidegger’s notion of “readiness-at-hand” vs. “presence-at-hand.” When you’re using a tool to accomplish something and you’re not aware of it, that’s readiness-at-hand — for example, writing with a pen. But when you’re aware of the tool as a tool, as an object in itself, that’s presence-at-hand. For example, imagine the pen running out of ink. You become cognizant of it as an object in your hand. You consider its form and color, which were there all along.
When the product itself is so pleasurable to use it makes the activity more pleasurable, that’s good design.
As a general interaction design principle, striving for readiness-at-hand is usually a good thing. When the tool is present-at-hand, it’s usually because you’re fumbling around with it, trying to figure out how it can help you accomplish a goal.
Here’s the catch, though: over time and through repeated use, even some of the worst designs can become ready-at-hand. Many years ago, I watched customer service employees, without missing a beat, work an insane command line/function keys/tabbed green screen interface while on the phone with customers. When I asked them how they might improve their system, they didn’t have a good answer. This nightmare system had become second nature to them. Readiness-at-hand is not necessarily the mark of good design. We adapt to clunky, user-unfriendly design all the time, often without even realizing it.