I'm an invisible designer. I make things disappear. By design

I’m an invisible designer. I make things disappear. By design

You may think I design invisible cars, or set the opacity of my interface elements to zero – that could be considered invisible design, but it’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about designing stuff so that you don’t even know you’re using it. I’m talking about how you didn’t have to look on your plane ticket for your boarding gate. I’m talking about how you booked your Uber ride within Google maps. I’m talking about letting you have a fantastic day because all of your apps just worked. Trying to achieve something, and getting irritated by trying, or not doing it because it would take too long, is the opposite of invisible design. Invisible design is not hiding things away, it’s users not noticing that they are designed.

We chatted about invisible design last week at the Durban UX meet up and I found myself to be passionate about exploring it further in my own words.

Visible design isn’t wrong, it’s just not the best for things that people use. Graphic designers, illustrators and artists are mostly visible designers. Visible design is easy and common. Good visible design is hard, but good visible design does not translate into good invisible design. There is a scale of visible to invisible design.

Let me set up an algology. 20-30 years ago, you were briefed on redesigning an entrance to a small shopping mall. The branding team had chosen 5 colourful wooden doors! Bright! So on-brand! So inviting! The doors even had cool engravings and nice soft handles. This is design – making things stick out. The shoppers would understand that they were doors – at least. But that is not invisible design. So let’s use this as a start and move toward the invisible end of the scale.

1. Reduce the amount of doors

Customers could come in and go out through one door. They wouldn’t have to think about which door is for what and what the difference is. Their cognitive load would decrease because they wouldn’t have to choose a door. The process of entering the building becomes invisible. But there are more angles to consider: there may be congestion around the door as people queue to get in and out; customers still wouldn’t know what the door was for; there may be hygiene issues around the touching of the door handle; and the door may break down quickly due to continual open, closing and slamming.

2. An ideal customer solution

So maybe the ideal customer experience is tested and each one of the bugs about the single door is dealt with. Or maybe we just fix it in one swoop! However the decision was made, a big hole got made in the wall. It solved all of the issues at once: there would be no congestion; no hygiene issues; no broken doors; one entrance and exit; space to pass in and out of the mall; and the customers could see where the door leads. Immediately, the experience is invisible. The shoppers have no idea how easy life just became. But now the management are complaining: the cool air is getting out; and there are security concerns. In essence, other parties haven’t weren’t considered.

3. Let’s create a solution that considers all parties

So the designers put the door back – but not just any door. It’s an automated glass sliding door that opens as a shopper approaches.The customers still wouldn’t need to open or close the doors; they’d be able to see what was inside; and it would act almost the same as a hole in the wall. Painless. Hygienic. Secure at night. Cooler inside. But this may be the first automated sliding door the customers have ever seen! This new door system might be scary or bizarre for new customers

4. Do some growth hacking

So the designer and his growth hacking team showed a bunch of the target audience how it works and hired them for 2 hours, at the beginning of the day, to walk in and out as new shoppers arrived. New shoppers observed other shoppers (maybe even their friend) navigate the sliding doors without freaking out! They saw it was safe and easy; and that no one was stopping to ask questions or complain. The behaviour caught on. The book clubs and local pubs were buzzing with speak of those new sliding doors, but in a few days they were the norm – and then they were forgotten. They became invisible.

And then every mall in the area implemented the new entrance design – because their audience got used to the idea and even expected it.

So that was the analogy. Now let’s talk invisible design

So, invisible design! There are several ways to make your experience invisible. I’ll go through various ways of doing so.

Use a recognised pattern or interface element

If your content, or the action you want your user to take, is king, don’t allow your interface to compete with it for attention. Using a button that’s been used before, and using elements a user recognises reduces cognitive load. It’s basically cached in their memory. They don’t see it as something new. Their brain knows what it is and treats it as normal – just like your brain stops freaking out when you have a shirt on your back. It gets used to it and eventually doesn’t even notice it. The more familiar elements and patterns you have, the less stressed out your users will be. They’ll be able to devote much more mental energy to the task at hand. So make your buttons look like standard buttons. Use the same interface elements and design patterns your users are used to (yeah you gotta do some research to know what they’re used to, or whether the increased cognitive load of a new UI element will be worth it). As an invisible designer, copying and blending in is good. Make use of users’ cached interface and experience memories.

This is one of the hardest parts of product design. You’ve gotta be humble. You’ve got to realise that as a designer, your job is not to make things look pretty. Your job is to help the user. Sure, making things pretty may be an answer to helping the user, but you need to lay your pride down! Don’t reinvent every wheel! As a designer, the best thing for the product, service, user may be to not have an interface. The best thing may be to use comic sans! Scary. But that’s how product designers are different. They understand their target audience. You’re designing a product and an experience – not just interfaces. And you’re not in the same category as a graphic designer, or an illustrator – their jobs are largely to make things noticeable.

Reduction

Reduce the amount of steps. Reduce the amount of taps. Reduce the number of ways to do the same thing. Reduce the amount of features. Do less, and do it better. Can you remove the middleman your business relies on? A product designer needs access to this level of knowledge. Could you do it all over IM, email, phone call, SMS? Could you achieve the same things without an interface?

I think a lot of product designers have transitioned from work as UI designers and so that’s their default. But what can be stripped away and reduced? How can we reduce the interface?

Could you ask someone, or the app, to do your shopping based on your blood type and what you got last time? Rather than doing shopping on the app, just insert your blood type and leave the rest up to the app, or the business behind the app.

Context

Can you only expose interface elements when your user needs them? When should a restaurant give their customer a menu? When they want it, and not any other time. The waiter either gives you a menu when you ask for it, when you sit down and search for him, or when 3.5 minutes has gone by and you’ve scratched your head twice. The last option can either happen because the waiter knows the customer, or because he’s gathered data on the perfect time to offer a menu.

This guy is trying to get context right

Google knows when to show you ads – when you searched for it. Facebook show you product ads in your feed after you’ve visited a product’s site, which freaked me out when it happened the first time, but the following example is even more amazing: Facebook showed us Julie Solomon property ads after she’d physically been to our house. We didn’t like her page or visit her website – she visited our house. Creepy and brilliant. Not a coincident. Your app or product could/should be a master learner or aggregator.

I don’t want an oven in my house until I need to cook. I don’t want a bed in my house until I need to sleep. I don’t want a car until I need to go somewhere. I don’t want buttons in my app that I don’t want to use. Please take some time to learn who I am and what I like. Please take some time to know who your users are, and who that one specific user is.

Some great questions to start off with when dealing with context are when, where, and who.

Behind the scenes and trust

Think duck. Furious under the water. Calm above. What about designing things that are invisible to the end user? The interface your staff use? The systems your staff use? Your business model? How you answer phone calls? Whether you use Skype, email or Slack? Make the behind-the-scenes systems better. You know when you put a coin in the vending machine and out pops a can? Or yo know how your car starts when you turn the key? Pretty simple huh? How we trust those simple processes. And how much life sucks when the car won’t start, or when the can doesn’t pop out. How much stress are you taking away from the user? How much knowledge are you encapsulating? Would your users say ‘It just works’, without caring how, why or when?

How much of what we design is prescribed by the way the business runs, or the way things have always been? What can your business do differently so that users have less to learn, less choices to make, less to interact with? What can you start doing that would allow them to trust you more – and to start delegating parts of their life to you?

I let my maid clean my house how she wants to now. Before, I used to give her a list. Not worrying is freeing. Trust is amazing. How are you earning your users trust?

Some apps show information really simply, but just imagine how much is going on behind the scenes: Google Now, Notification Centre, Bluetooth, Apple Pay. We just trust that it works and don’t ask how.

X&Go, and its invisible score

I’ve been working on X&Go for the past year – and I believe it has a very good invisible design score. Here are a few reasons why I believe so:

  1. Chat, one of the most-used interfaces in the world, is the interface. It’s as familiar as it gets.
  2. Trust is built in relation to app use. The more the user uses the app, the more knowledge is gained of the user.
  3. There is potential for a insert-coin-here effect. A user can request anything and the person on the other side can action anything.
  4. Because it’s a chat app, it’s naturally contextual. Information and tools are served when requested, and when looked for. And it’ll only get more contextual.
  5. The whole business model is built on reduction. We do not need another interface. We do not need another UI. This is not to say we haven’t explored other options, or crafted a very simple chat UI – but it is still chat without UI. Any anything is possible through it, and any business can use it.

I love invisible design. The thankless task is becoming more bearable – even by writing about it. Stepping into the shadows, and taking no credit is the game I’m getting used to playing – it’s similar to trying to live with less, while the rest of the world around you tries to get more and more and more.