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The Myth of Invisible Design
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.
What is the mark of good design? When a product’s presence-at-hand (its form and appearance, especially when idle) doesn’t interfere with its readiness-at-hand, but also improves or enhances it. A classic example of this is the original iPod click wheel. Its appearance coupled with its function actually enhanced its usefulness. The design was visible — in the best way. When the product itself is so pleasurable to use that it makes the activity you’re engaging in more pleasurable (in this case, flipping through thousands of songs), that’s good design.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
— William Morris
Car brands build their reputations on presence-at-hand. Every car can get you from place to place, but a Ferrari will cost you more than a Kia. You’ll have readiness-at-hand driving a Ferrari and driving a Kia, but the experience — which I would argue is a combination of readiness-at-hand and presence-at-hand — will be decidedly different (and, not inconsequentially, different by hundreds of thousands of dollars).
But design difference is not limited to luxury items. Something as simple as a potato peeler can accomplish the successful marriage of appearance and function. A good product can transform for the better the experience of doing a task. And isn’t that what experience design is all about?
Not only are visible designs potentially more valuable, they are potentially more usable as well. What we can see, we can appreciate and value — even if we’re not using it. The depth of a product like Amazon’s Alexa is not immediately apparent because its voice interface is invisible. In removing all presence-at-hand, its inventors also removed some readiness-at-hand. This is true of all voice and some gestural systems, as well as “chat” UIs. Some friction, some visibility, can be good for usability. If you can’t figure out how to use a product, its invisibility is useless. This is why you see stickers on the front of automatic hand dryers that instruct you how to gesture to turn them on.
Sometimes, making things invisible is downright harmful. Hiding information and controls — even when infrequently used — can be very disruptive. A classic example is Microsoft’s adaptive menus, which hid menu items that were not frequently used. This caused all sorts of havoc.
There are three great themes in design: making something beautiful, making something easier, and making something possible. The best designs accomplish all three at once. This might involve making parts of the product invisible. But it might not. The best products are as visible as they need to be to make the activity better.