Overcoming the Invisible Interface

Renato de Souza, our Product Designer, talks about expectations, context, and how buzzwords may sabotage your product.

Drawing with stylised eyes with a black background

“The best UI is No UI” “The more invisible, the more effective”, “We’ll use (new tech) to make (feature) frictionless”.

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard at least one of these.

Be it in meetings, best-practice articles, or on your favorite UX podcast, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll find someone preaching some variation of the “Invisible Interface”. This is the idea that interfaces should—by visual or technological means—generate the least effort and friction possible, to the point of getting out of the way of the user and going unnoticed.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the Internet of ThingsVoice UIs, or any other tech trend, the unrelenting repetition leads us to believe that the “invisibilization” is both a magical solution and the definitive goal to every design challenge that we come across.

Is it really, though?

Borderlines and boundaries

You can’t deny the allure of the invisible interface. It sells us the idea of a product that can fulfill any need instantly, without requiring effort or posing any challenge to the person interacting with it. This may as well be the dream of every designer: more user-centric than this? Impossible.

That being said, be it in theory or practical application, this approach is loaded with limitations that usually are ignored when its use is encouraged. Limitations those that can directly and negatively affect your design practice, your product, and—yes—even your users.

In the next few sections, we’ll take a look at how the invisible interface obsession can negatively affect 1. your users, 2. your product, and 3. your design practice, then we’ll explore why this happens, and what you can do about it.

1. For your users

The greatest and most recurring argument towards invisibility in a UI is based on taking the weight off of our users’ shoulders, simplifying interactions, and hastening results.

It seems basic and quite obvious, after all, the easier and faster the path to the goal is, the better the experience, right?

Well, not really.

Up to a certain point, removing the complexity from an interaction is both reasonable and desirable. We, as designers, take pride in helping people make sense out of a series of confusing and difficult situations. The real problem lies in assuming that efficiency is the end-all-be-all attribute for the users while sacrificing others — such as control and security—in the process.

Consider a smart assistant on the likes of Alexa: a product completely devoted to making your daily routine more efficient. You don’t need to think that much to set up your alarm clock or play a song, you only need to repeat sentences that vaguely resemble those you already use on a day to day basis.

However, when you download a new Skill(the assistant’s take on apps), how do you know which command will result in the desired action? At this moment, without the friction (read: support) of a persistent interface, we usually resort to one of two approaches:

  • Trial and error: Our most common choice. It’s easy to nail simple commands down, however, as the complexity of the task grows, so does the likelihood for error, which generates frustration and task abandonment, harming the discoverability of your features which raises the odds that they go unnoticed.
  • Google/Manual: Even though they can work very well, these options remove us from the product’s context and force us to stop our main task every single time a new question pops up. Furthermore, you’ll always have to recall the commands before using them. How many more times you’ll have to check the manual before you remember them by heart?

In this scenario, the supposed efficiency that invisibility brings is not only unnecessary but also directly undermines the user experience. It creates an artificial barrier during the learning process that—working as an opaque box, with no clues or apparent restrictions on what can be done—yanks you off the control of something that was intended to help in your routine.

On the other hand, a great interface (be it visual or not) gives you context and directs you: every single path you can take at a given moment, as well as their outcomes, are—or at least should be—clear, supported by a clear use of affordances and effective conditioning.

And it’s not that Alexa & Co. are bad products per se, but they clearly demonstrate the challenges that a model invisibility presents and how it may affect the interactions with your product. It is no coincidence that the majority of so-called smart devices circumvent these limitations through mobile apps or screens. The most expensive Echo speakers included.

2. For your product/business

Try recalling an extraordinary experience you had in the past. What actually made it memorable? If we’re talking about a service or digital product, the first impulse is to praise both the ease and the speed at which you completed what you set out to do. “All in a single place”, “Lightning-fast” and “Zero Effort” are some of the well-known quips that come to our mind and demonstrate this pattern.

This is why it is easy to believe that, in order to be successful, a product just ought to “innovate” by optimizing or removing as many processes as possible —invisibility rearing its head again. The thing is, when you direct all of your efforts to efficiency, sooner or later some things are bound to happen…

First, if this optimization is exclusively due to technology, you are setting up an easily replicable value proposition. This undermines your product’s capability of maintaining a sustainable market share as competitors adopt similar solutions. What used to generate excitement and engagement becomes commonplace and requires more and more investments to produce sizeable outcomes.

Second, but maybe even more important, when you make a product invisible, removing support points, concealing it, and staying unseen, you are sacrificing the emotional experience that makes it distinct and memorable for your customer.

After all, there are moments — such as a special trip or an unusual dinner night— in which even though things can take a lot of time or require a lot of effort, we don’t disregard them as bad, sometimes we might even enjoy them more because of it.

But why does this happen? Why do we view these situations in such a different light? Well actually, a fair share of this is due to something that is actually really easy to point out: expectations.

Yes, there are fundamental differences between any two situations. After all, waiting in line at a bank branch during lunchtime will take more time than, say, prepping some microwave popcorn, but this is exactly the point: the aspects of a situation will determine the baseline of our expectations and we’ll act accordingly.

That’s why, in the majority of cases, we don’t actually care about how fast something really is. We aren’t counting each second that passes to calculate the daily variance in waiting times for the elevator. We are just evaluating—quite superficially—how its speed compares to our expectations. If something takes more time than it should—and if waiting is undesirable—we are frustrated and vice-versa.

But, Renato”—you protest—“you’re talking about how totally different situations work. MY product is hyper-focused on a single market and we already have a pretty good idea of what it really wants and it is being FAST.
What do other situations have to do with making my product memorable?”

Well, to be honest… kind of everything?

To cement a product in the minds of customers, both our features and experiences must face off against what is called Liquid Expectations: This is when the references of a product or service are impactful enough to “overflow” into a different context, usually to something that has the same value scale. It occurs when, for example, you judge the hassle of going to the nearest drugstore against the ease of using a food delivery app, wishing the former experience was exactly like the latter.

This concept was popularized due to its accuracy in describing the effect that the immediacy of digital services had on its physical-bound counterparts. Nevertheless, it applies across digital products in different markets as well.

So, remember, you are fighting against not only direct or experiential competitors but also against indirect forces that play with what people expect. If you can’t set or leverage these forces yourself, simply playing into invisibility may make your product indistinguishable from the already quite crowded status-quo.

Overly-unobtrusive or subtle experiences will just go on unnoticed.

Furthermore, the liquidity of expectations imparts a tendency to force certain values on products that don’t apply to them, which is especially dangerous since we — decision-makers working within those same products — are not immune to it. The pervasive sense that every single product must be “smart” or “frictionless” stems from it, as we observe and are influenced by a handful of successful solutions. But this overly direct line of thinking limits the value we can generate and our chances of success. One too many failed-and-forgotten crowdfunded products—like the Kolibree smart toothbrush, or the Mousr autonomous cat toy—can tell this tale.

That’s why UX Writing (content design in a broader sense), microinteractions (& motion), and, more generally, other vehicles of Emotional Design are becoming more and more important. They can create lasting impressions that strengthen people’s bonds with your product and differentiate it from the myriad others. Sacrificing emotional presence in favor of efficiency and invisibility will only hurt your staying power.

At the end of the day, you don’t want the person to solely remember doing something, you want them to remember that they did something thanks to your product.

3. For you, Designer

Suppose you are in the middle of a crowded street. You are in a hurry and you need to withdraw some cash for the subway fare. Thankfully, you find an ATM right outside a corner store. You put your card in and you see…a text bubble? Is… Is this…

Yeah, it’s a chatbot.

Quite surreal, ain’t it? But as random as it may seem, this is one of the main problems that chasing invisibility may bring: disregard for the context.

In the ATM example above, someone probably would’ve lauded the chatbot as an “easier” and “more frictionless” experience. Heck, they may have even argued that it “lowers the cognitive load of the user”, as “only one thing is shown at a time” and, to a certain extent, it makes perfect sense.

The thing is, we don’t design in a vacuum. We design for a particular context and to attain certain objectives. The interface and the product must fit and work with the context, not against it. So, constantly suggesting that ChatbotsArtificial Intelligence, and whatnot will always be the best course of action for your product oversimplifies complex issues, generating answers that are fast, easy, and—more often than not—wrong.

And even though having your own set of heuristics is a natural and usually beneficial aspect of your craft — as it reduces the processing effort of action and makes your decisions flow faster and smoother — , this kind of reductionist thinking is also where our cognitive biases come from.

This kind of reasoning will undermine your decisions. You’ll be forgoing actually solving problems, and will be slicing, stitching, and justifying your product so it fits a predetermined solution instead.

This creates a self-sustaining cycle that unwittingly pulls you in: When the “invisible” way works, our behavior is reinforced and we lean into it more and more. Then, when something goes wrong, it’s hard to find alternatives because we have only a few reference options to compare on our minds, and we don’t know when to use them because we are clueless as to what actually made the original approach work in the first place. We are left with no points to learn and iterate upon.

In sum, keep in mind that the greatest weapon in a designer’s toolkit is not the awareness of current trends, nor the ability in following processes to the tee, but their very own critical reasoning skills. By being intentional in every step we take and not leaving things up to chance, we can fail, learn why we failed, and—sometimes—even succeed.

Just like the difference between good and bad science, this is something that separates strong design practices from weak ones: we don’t praise one-size-fits-all miracle solutions, we work to understand, hypothesize, propose, and disprove so that actual learning is possible.

But this is a discussion for another day. So let’s keep going:

The actual ACTUAL problem

So does this mean that we must stop talking about Artificial Intelligence and Conversational UIs, among others? Hell no! Like any other tool, these have their own pros, cons, and use cases that must be put to test so that we may push boundaries and uncover new possibilities within our products.

Still, by indiscriminately using these, under the pretext of an invisibility that ignores both the business objectives and the needs of your customers, you are, at best, taking a shot in the dark, or, at worst, shooting yourself in the foot.

And this is the actual problem. The invisible interface itself isn’t acknowledged as a tool but instead used as an excuse. It becomes another shortcut we take to shield ourselves from the peculiarities and limits of a situation.

The thing is, when we hear “chatbot” or “A.I.” or one of those other magic words, it’s quite easy to take them as absolute truth. Their rigid and universal format doesn’t afford much space for questioning, does it?

But when the answers we give to completely different questions start to look a little too alike, it’s time to rethink how we came upon them.

So, when you or someone else on your team is suggesting ready-made solutions, there are a few questions that, if tackled from the initial discovery phase, can prevent one of those buzzwords from worming their way into your product:

  • Will it still be relevant in one year? Employing something just because it’s trending or because your competitors are also doing it doesn’t work. Examine if the solution aligns with the current strategy and the long-term vision of your product to avoid spending time and effort on initiatives that will soon be discarded or become outdated.
  • Is it something our customers actually want, need, or will use? Sometimes, be it because of a company culture focused on outputs or due to a lack of clear objectives, we may find ourselves designing and shipping as many functionalities as possible, confident that we are doing our jobs properly because we are releasing “exciting new features” to our customers. In these moments, it is worth taking a few steps back and pondering if there really is any value —for both the users and your business—in solving the issue at hand, as well as the format suggested for doing so.
  • Is it scalable? Delivering a solution that’ll be restricted to a single team, isolated feature, or specific segment limits its return and effectiveness as it requires dedicated resources and effort. Furthermore, one-off solutions may generate inconsistencies that undermine your product’s value proposition.
  • How will we know if we’ve made the right choice? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a good solution will stay like that forever. Defining and monitoring effective metrics guarantees that any problem is identified and corrected in time. Popular frameworks like HEART or AARRR can help you build a general thermometer for your product, and, when combined with behavior analytics, enables you to narrow down on the causes for the majority of problems that come up.

Pro-tip: Be it for a lack of time and/or resources, sometimes you can’t answer some of the higher-level issues described above. In these cases, you must double down on the measuring efforts so you can change course at the first sign of danger, mitigating your losses in the process.

By tackling these points you develop your reasoning, prevent some catastrophes, and—as a bonus—arm yourself with better arguments to articulate your decisions with both your team and other stakeholders.

And, when you finally get to churn out some new screens, you already have a clear view of the context you are working on, the impact you want to have on it, and how you are going to get there. All of this by being as visible as you ought to be and harnessing the qualities that make the UI a powerful tool in the first place:

The interface—and, by extension, the product—works as a lens, it limits and shapes your perception of the world but at the same time enables you to do things that, without it, would be next to impossible.

So, if you are still looking for a foundation to build your interface upon, start by thinking of it as an “enabling tool”, one that focuses not on getting out of the way of the user, but on making their journey the best it can be.

Heartful thanks to Amanda Elyss & Amanda Legge for the push to publish this piece and the last-minute reviews, to Evilanne Brandão & Matheus Spagiari for checking out my first drafts, and to the content team at Nubank Design for both proof-reading and granting me this space.

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