It was a full house of design thinkers with a Silicon Valley twist. Serial Entrepreneurs. Voice-activation specialists. Tech wunderkinds. An evening of passionate discussion about the future of interfaces.
“I felt like I was back in college — the good parts of college,” Strava designer Peter Duyan told me afterwards.
Peter was crammed in this room of college-like discourse — designed for 35, now seating over 60 — because of a blog post I wrote that went unexpectedly viral.
I had proposed that “the best interface is no interface.” That we should focus on experiences and problems, not on screens. That UX is not UI. Two days after it was published, it was shared more on Twitter than anything ever written on The Cooper Journal, Core77 or Designer Observer. A week later, a Breaking Development podcast. Two weeks, a popular Branch discussion. A month, top ten on Hacker News again. All surprising, flattering, amazing. And that evening, a conversation.
In the spirit of discourse, special guest and design legend Don Norman started the evening with an entertaining retort: “They made a big mistake when they invited me.” (Watch it above, or listen to it here. And if you haven’t read his books, you should).
Then, in 1984, Apple adopted Xerox PARC’s WIMP — window, icon, menu, pointer — and took us a galactic leap forward away from those horrifying command lines of DOS, and into a world of graphical user interfaces.
We were converted. And a decade later, when we could touch the Palm Pilot instead of dragging a mouse, we were even more impressed. But today, our love for the digital interface has gotten out-of-control.
It’s become the answer to every design problem.
How do you make a better car? Slap an interface in it.
A giant touchscreen with news and weather is exactly what’s missing from my hotel stay. (Source: IDEO)
Creative minds in technology should focus on solving problems. Not just make interfaces.
As Donald Norman said in 1990, “The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”
It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.
There is a better path: No UI. A design methodology that aims to produce a radically simple technological future without digital interfaces. Following three simple principles, we can design smarter, more useful systems that make our lives better.
Principle 1: Eliminate interfaces to embrace natural processes.
Severalcar companies have recently created smartphone apps that allow drivers to unlock their car doors. Generally, the unlocking feature plays out like this:
A driver approaches her car.
Takes her smartphone out of her purse.
Turns her phone on.
Slides to unlock her phone.
Enters her passcode into her phone.
Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the app.
Taps the desired app icon.
Waits for the app to load.
Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to unlock doors and taps that item.
Taps a button to unlock the doors.
The car doors unlock.
She opens her car door.
Thirteen steps later, she can enter her car.
The app forces the driver to use her phone. She has to learn a new interface. And the experience is designed around the flow of the computer, not the flow of a person.
If we eliminate the UI, we’re left with only three, natural steps:
A driver approaches her car.
The car doors unlock.
She opens her car door.
Anything beyond these three steps should be frowned upon.
Seem crazy? Well, this was solved by Mercedes-Benz in 1999. Please watch the first 22 seconds of this incredibly smart (but rather unsexy) demonstration:
By reframing design constraints from the resolution of the iPhone to our natural course of actions, Mercedes created an incredibly intuitive, and wonderfully elegant car entry. The car senses that the key is nearby, and the door opens without any extra work.
That’s good design thinking. After all, especially when designing around common tasks, the best interface is no interface.
A few companies, including Google, have built smartphone apps that allow customers to pay merchants using NFC. Here’s the flow:
A shopper enters a store.
Orders a sandwich.
Takes his smartphone out of his pocket.
Turns his phone on.
Slides to unlock.
Enters his passcode into the phone.
Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the Google Wallet app.
Taps the desired app icon.
Waits for the app to load.
Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to to reveal his credit cards linked to Google Wallet. In this case, “payment types.”
Swipes to find the credit card his would like to use.
Taps that desired credit card.
Finds the NFC receiver near the cash register.
Taps his smartphone to the NFC receiver to pay.
Sits down and eats his sandwich.
If we eliminate the UI, we’re again left with only three, natural steps:
A shopper enters a store.
Orders a sandwich.
Sits down and eats his sandwich.
Asking for an item to a person behind a register is a natural interaction. And that’s all it takes to pay with Auto Tab in Pay with Square. Start at 2:08:
Auto Tab in Pay with Square does require some UI to get started. But by using location awareness behind-the-scenes, the customer doesn’t have to deal with UI, and can simply pursue his natural course of actions.
As Jack Dorsey of Square explains above, “NFC is another thing you have to do. It’s another action you have to take. And it’s not the most human action to wave a device around another device and wait for a beep. It just doesn’t feel right.”
Principle 2: Leverage computers instead of catering to them.
No UI is about machines helping us, instead of us adapting for computers.
With UI, we are faced with counterintuitive interaction methods that are tailored to the needs of a computer. We are forced to navigate complex databases to obtain simple information. We are required to memorize countless passwords with rules like one capital letter, two numbers and a punctuation mark. And most importantly, we’re constantly pulled away from the stuff we actually want to be doing.
A Windows 2000 password requirement. (Source: Microsoft)
By embracing No UI, the design focuses on your needs. There’s no interface for the sake of interface. Instead, computers are catered to you.
Your car door unlocks when you walk up to it. Your TV turns on to the channel you want to watch. Your alarm clock sets itself, and even wakes you up at the right REM moment.
Even your car lets you know when something is wrong:
When we let go of screen-based thinking, we design purely to the needs of a person. Afterall, good experience design isn’t about good screens, it’s about good experiences.
Principle 3: Create a system that adapts for people.
I know, you’re great.
You’re a unique, amazingly complex individual, filled with your own interests and desires.
So building a great UI for you is hard. It takes open-minded leaders, great research, deep insights...let’s put it this way: it’s challenging.
So why are companies spending millions of dollars simply to make inherently unnatural interfaces feel somewhat natural for you? And even more puzzling, why do they continue to do so, when UI often has a diminishing rate of return?
Think back to when you first signed up for Gmail. Once you discovered innovative features like conversation view, you were hugely rewarded. But over time, the rate of returns have diminished. The interface has become stale.
Sadly, the obvious way for Google to give you another leap forward is to have its designers and engineers spend an incredible amount of time and effort to redesign. And when they do, you will be faced with the pain of learning how to interact with the new interface; some things will work better for you, and some things will be worse for you.
Alternatively, No UI systems focus on you. These systems aren’t bound by the constraints of screens, but instead are able to organically and rapidly grow to fit your needs.
After you sign up for Trunk Club, you have an introductory conversation with a stylist. Then, they send your first trunk of clothes. What you like, you keep. What you don’t like, you send back. Based on your returns and what you keep, Trunk Club learns more and more about you, giving you better and better results each time.
Diminishing rate of return over time? Nay, increasing returns.
Without a bulky UI, it’s easier to become more and more relevant. For fashion, the best interface is no interface.
Another company focused on adapting to your needs is Nest.
When I first saw Nest, I thought they had just slapped an interface on a thermometer and called it “innovation.”
As time passes, the need to use Nest’s UI diminishes. (Source: YouTube)
But there’s something special about the Nest thermostat: it doesn’t want to have a UI.
Nest studies you. It tracks when you wake up. What temperatures you prefer over the course of the day. Nest works hard to eliminate the need for its own UI by learning about you.
Haven’t I heard this before?
The foundation for No UI has been laid by countless other members of the design community.
In 1988, Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC coined “ubiquitous computing.” In 1995, this was part of his abstract on Calm Technology:
“The impact of technology will increase ten-fold as it is imbedded in the fabric of everyday life. As technology becomes more imbedded and invisible, it calms our lives by removing annoyances while keeping us connected with what is truly important.”
“...Norman shows why the computer is so difficult to use and why this complexity is fundamental to its nature. The only answer, says Norman, is to start over again, to develop information appliances that fit people's needs and lives.”
In 1999, Kevin Ashton gave a talk about “The Internet of Things.” His words:
“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.”
Today, we finally have the technology to achieve a lot of these goals.
This past year, Amber Case talked about Weiser-inspired location awareness.
There’s a lot we can achieve with some of our basic tools today.
Let’s keep talking.
Oh, there’s so much more to say:
Watch the Cooper Parlor. After this essay exploded on Twitter, Cooper hosted a No UI event with special guest, design legend Donald Norman.
And like the nerdy kids who studied over Spring Break and had perfect attendance, there were plenty of Cooperistas out there changing the world. Take, Chris Noessel, and his delivery of "500 to 1: A Cooper Case Study" at IA Summit:
Some startups of Rock Health, looking to join the fun, and gain some wisdom from the Seniors dropped by for some advise on all things UI, software, interaction, apps and apps.
We've also been going around to other campuses, in search of some future Spring Breakers. Faith Bolliger and Karen Lemen are recruiting over at IIT in Illinois, and Peter Duyan and Stefan Klocek are recruiting at CMU in Pittsburgh.
Faith and Karen in the bubble.
Stefan considering the cloud.
Before you go, while we dream about what might be next for Amazon's warehouses...
...we thought we'd ask you to join in the fun of our Spring Break fun with a few of the "Legends of Cooper Jeopardy!" questions.
He has been on two reality shows, and was recently asked to be on a third.
It was one of those, “please, please, let this send,” kind of moments when you hope a weak airport WiFi connection doesn’t disconnect, a low-battery indicator doesn’t shut down your laptop — who knows where there’s an outlet in this airport — and your email actually sends to your million dollar client when the message popped up and your stomach drops: “Oops!”
Like some kind of creepy, American Psycho moment, a hardly-discernible, non-apologetic message from Gmail put this exact dagger into my heart and sent me wondering what went wrong.
Sure, of course, just lemme look up error #001. What?
Google’s Chrome browser gives off an even worse error message that doesn’t make things better, just a wanna-be-hipster-piece-of-software knocking off a Susan Kare classic laughing in your face when you’re frustrated:
Maybe this is part of some awful brand initiative. After all, Google is a place of smiles. An every-color-of-the-rainbow logo, and three square meals place to work with unbelievable benefits. But, then again, Google is hardly alone in this kind of “smile when you’ve fallen” approach to error messages.
Microsoft is sadly considering implementing the same, cutesy thinking in a revamp of their blue screen of death as a part of their otherwise exciting, new Windows 8 operating system:
Earlier this year, city officials in Boulder, Colorado discovered an unusual form of vandalism. A graffiti artist had altered the entrance sign to The Boulder County Justice Center utilizing a tool in typographic communication that has become a trend in our digital world: the scare quote.
Typing with our thumbs has added to our text-based communication chatspeak, emoticons and a plethora of new abbreviations. But its most interesting contribution to contemporary typography might be bringing the scare quote into the mainstream.
You may not be familiar with the label for the Digital Age’s favorite typographic marks, but odds are you’ve seen them used to add playful emphasis to words and phrases in all corners of your everyday life.
Liquor store signage, Berkeley, CA, October 2010.
Ford Escort, New York City, NY, November 2010 (Tim McCoy)
Amazon.com product review, January 2007. (Amazon.com)
They’ve gotten so popular, professional copywriters and journalists are using them for mainstream audiences. Design-conscious Target is using them for deals that are “Unbelievable!” and just downright “Surprising!”; The Washington Post Style section has used them to describe Jon Stewart; and global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi is using them in their new Toyota Highlander ad campaign.
Some teens text far more than they talk on cellphones. (See full infographic at Flowtown)
But unlike a basic word processor, cellphones use unformatted, plain text, text messaging. (Status updates on Facebook and Twitter are also exclusively plain text). That means lots of communication occurs without rich text options like bold and italics for emphasis. So when we need to tell our friends Justin Bieber is “so hot” in his latest video, scare quotes are not only useful, but might be the best typographic option.
The human voice is an incredible method of communication capable of a wide range of expression. Sadly, the more we communicate via text message and email, the more of that amazing ability we lose in conversation.
A SNL skit that might best be transcribed with scare quotes. (YouTube)
In walks scare quotes. Whether you’re quoting someone or not, seeing quotation marks makes the reader “think” someone is saying a particular word or phrase. And in a cold, digital world, vocal expressions like sarcasm might only be possible with a faux human voice, via scare quotes.
Students and professors frequently discuss complex and sensitive topics. Whether it’s class stratification, AIDS or gender roles, it would be easy to offend others by misusing particular words and phrases.
So, academia turns to scare quotes. The glyph allows them to express doubt and create distance from delicate subjects in collegiate essays.
There are provocative blogs and intelligent comments, but read enough politically-slanted ones, and you might think we’re a nation of clueless “elites” or angry members of the “Party of No.” This “misinformation” is fueled by scare quotes.
Scare quotists seem to have taken a cue from the rich history of hand-painted signage and advertisements. The beautiful art of sign painting once gave a handwritten, human quality to the billboards that are a part of city life.
As sign painting technique for slogans, quotation marks effortlessly added a human voice to advertisements.
Iowa, 1940. (Library of Congress)
Today, there are some artists that focus on incredible, expressive lettering like Jessica Hische, Seb Lester, John Downer and Jim Parkinson. For today’s masses, it might be said that there is an easier way to refer to the human quality of hand-painted signage in text messages and emails: scare quotes.
A retrospective of Jim Parkinson’s amazing career. (Vimeo)
In the late 1950s, an interesting and alternative usage of the apostrophe appeared around Liverpool, England. At greengrocers — fruit and vegetable stands — a reportedly mostly foreign-born contingent of workers made an apostrophe mistake over possessives and plurals commonplace.
Instead of putting “Apples” on sale, for example, the shopkeepers over-corrected their grammar and put signs up for “Apple's.” So there weren't “oranges,” but rather “orange's,” and the idea was further extended to change phrases like “please do not feed the birds” to “please do not feed the bird's.”
Those that originally drew what we call “quotation marks,” might be puzzled by the criticism surrounding the marks being used for emphasis. Afterall, that’s probably why the forms were drawn in the first place.
A diple is a historical punctuation mark that was used for emphasis. In the early 1500s, one style was drawn in the shape of what we call “quotation marks” today.
Printed work from 1521. “The diple (represented by double commas) has been placed in the margin to draw attention to the comments...it has not been used to indicate quotations from the King himself, not quotations from Scripture or patristic authorities.” (Pause and Effect, p. 221)
Punctuation historian Malcom Parkes writes that a diple “…like italic type, was employed for emphasis even where there was no quotation. In 1526, it was used by Nicolaus Hausmann of Zwickau in the margins of a letter to Stephen Roth, against lines that contained material he wishes to emphasize.” (Pause and Effect, p.59) According to Robert Bringhurst, the notion of quotation marks “did not come into routine typographic use until the late sixteenth century.” (Elements of Typographic Style, p.64)
So, you've decided to forgo Robert Bringhurst’s wisdom that “many unprofessional writers overuse quotation marks,” and chosen to embrace scare quotes. Soon, you'll simultaneously travel a down a path of great expression, humor and potential embarrassment. To guide you on your journey, here are a few, fun ways you might consider using scare quotes:
These alternates can be fun, and might make for a good classroom exercise, but lack the effectiveness of scare quotes. Afterall, the power of scare quotes is largely ambiguity, so to reduce that fuzziness feels like the wrong typographic choice.
Given their heavy usage online, there has been some tongue in cheek interest in establishing a HTML tag for scare quotes. Quotation-marks.com suggests using the rarely implemented <q> tag to create distinction between scare quotes and regular ones. Some utilize the fictitious <sarcasm> tag for sarcasm in forums and comments. The W3C does not approve “<sarcasm>.”
Quotation marks are used beyond their standard purposes all around us. Known as “scare quotes,” they are fueled by the need for emphasis in plain text, sarcasm, sensitivity and talking from the gut. They can be fun, and we’ve seen similar “mistakes” before, but if you hop on the typographic trend of the Digital Age, beware: they’re not accepted by everyone.
At Cooper, we spend thousands of hours designing systems around the goals and motivations of the people that will use them. We travel across the country, continent and world to have conversations with real users to ensure that we understand their needs and that our design decisions will make their everyday tasks easier and more intuitive to accomplish.
But perhaps we can improve our methods by considering an inverse approach: What if our intent was to frustrate, rather than ease? What if we intentionally made things subtly challenging and unintuitive?
Aside from simply malicious design, is there anything that intentionally facilitates a bad experience? Why would someone do that to other people? For what reasons might something be made to suck?
Making walking suck (for strength)
I was first thinking about this a few months ago when I was with my brother who just had his first kid (making me a first-time uncle). We were at Target to buy some diapers when a woman in her thirties walked by wearing a pair of shoes that were anything but ordinary.
Take the typical athletic shoe company: In general, they've probably been trying to make the shoe experience better by iterating designs and materials in an attempt to make it easier to walk, run or jump.
The woman at Target was wearing a pair of shoes that had, well, a different goal. Despite being sold in the same retail space as shoes that boast comfort and support, the shoes didn’t make walking better; they made it worse. In fact, the intent of the shoes was to make walking suck.
The shoes are called “Shape Ups.” Because walking in them is more difficult, wearing them is considered “exercise.” And a thirty-something mother in the diaper section at Target might figure she doesn't have the time to exercise anymore, so she made walking suck in an attempt to get fit.
Making everyday experiences more difficult is actually common in exercise equipment. Lifting weights, for example, adds resistance to common arm and leg movements. Shape Ups just apply this principle to walking. They make walking suck so that their users can become stronger doing everyday activities.
Making you feel sick (for fun)
In sixth grade, those of us nerdy enough to be a part of Safety Patrol—the early risers who helped classmates cross the street—took a field trip to Adventureland, a theme park in our home state of Iowa. It was a reward for a year of hard work.
One of my good friends got on a popular ride called the Silly Silo. To participate is simple: Stand inside a silo while it spins around and around at a quicker and quicker rate.
While many products aim directly at making you feel good, the Silly Silo is designed to make you feel horrible. Participants exit feeling dizzy and motion sickness. For my friend, the result was puking into the nearest trash can.
If a piece of business software caused you to feel dizzy, motion sickness or induce vomiting, it'd be a disaster. But in the world of amusement, engaging our body's natural gag reaction can be a great thing. Rides like the Silly Silo, those that drop you thirty stories, or roller coasters that flip you upside down are among the many common amusement park attractions that generate fun out of the rush a horrible feeling provides.
Making ugly websites (for good business)
A local store in the Silicon Valley asked me to create a website for them a few years ago. I jumped at the chance. I loved the owner's vision, his dedication to the community and his desire to create it with beautiful design. But something felt strange about creating such a professional site for a small shop.
Around that time, in 2006, Luke Wroblewski wrote a blog post titled “Make it Ugly” in which he described clients that wanted ugly websites so that the sites would feel more “genuine.” Luke made an argument against the idea, but desiring ugly in search of authenticity isn’t an unusual thought. Fourteen years earlier, in 1992, Ellen Lupton wrote “Low and High” in Eye Magazine, which discussed the history of graphic designers exploring low-brow aesthetics.
Nothing says local like Comic Sans. (Flickr by marblegravy)
I didn't make the store's website suck. But after they closed their doors—a year after I designed their site—maybe I should have. After all, littering your store with Papyrus, Comic Sans menus or having a dated website screams to the visitor, among other things, "Hey, I'm local. I’m the real deal." Conversely, professional typography, an elegant color palette, and rock-solid IA might communicate, "I'm a chain. I’m corporate." Making these elements suck a little might have better communicated the store’s local, personal approach.
Making airport seats suck (for prevention)
In 2008, I was sitting at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport exhausted, depressed and trying to fall asleep. I had run through an airport in Colorado, faced a long-delayed flight in California and, by the end of the night, had been re-routed across the country to Chicago in hopes of catching an early morning flight to make the funeral of a close friend that had died days earlier in Iowa.
Despite being emotionally and physically drained, I couldn’t fall asleep on the seats at O’Hare. I tried resting my legs on my bag, sleeping sideways in a corner, extending myself across two rows of seats and just about every possible other position to get some sleep. None of them worked. Even though O’Hare has a history of Eames design, the Chicago airport's oddly shaped seats and large armrests made it impossible for me to get comfortable. Of the hundreds of things that are frustrating with air travel, why would anyone be cruel enough to top it all off with terrible seating?
Air travelers in Paris attempt to sleep. (Flickr by Pinelife)
A few weeks before my experience in Chicago, Chris Noessel, a co-worker at Cooper, posted on this blog about slanty design (or what some Cooperistas call “design friction.”) The idea of “slanty design” came from an article by Russell Beale in which he described slanted reading tables at the Library of Congress that prevent visitors from setting down drinks and risking spills. Since the tables suck to eat on, they discourage visitors from bringing food that might ruin the library’s collection. (Beale’s article has a few more examples if you’re curious.)
The Library of Congress didn’t actually design their reading tables to prevent visitors from eating food, it just works out that way. But the chairs that I couldn’t sleep on at O’Hare were designed to prevent sleeping. The large armrests in-between each seat are intended to make sleeping suck so that people don’t sleep at airports.
There are plenty of other examples of design intended to prevent behavior. Speed bumps, for example, discourage speeding. Or, similar to the airport seats, some bus benches have ridges to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. These things make a particular behavior suck to prevent it from happening.
Why it's made to suck
Making conventional interactions suck seems counter-intuitive and cruel. But there are plethora of products and services that aim to suck at common expectations for good reason. Among the many possibilities, things that suck can lead to strength, fun, good business and can introduce friction to prevent improper usage.
I'm excited. In the first week of my summer internship at Cooper, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a test project for a PDA system. And when starting on my first team project for a new piece of software, my Cooper mentor, Nick Myers, had to warn others that he was about "to let the lion out of his cage."
To a young graphic designer, the world of screen-based, interactive work is mouth-watering. The relatively new, ever-expanding and extremely relevant world of web, touch screen and software design allows for seemingly limitless visual exploration. Like early nautical explorers (viz., the title of this post), graphic designers must confront various barriers as they reckon with the unknown. Read More