UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1077 August 26, 2013

Designing for Transparency and the Myth of the Modern Interface

Over a decade after Mark Weiser’s publications on calm computing, we’re finally reaching a point where technological capability matches our desire for ubiquitous computing and so-called natural user interfaces. However, taking a lesson from artificial intelligence, just because we can create a system does not mean we are ready to design it.

The next frontier for calm computing is the idea of an “invisible interface.” Much of the interaction design community has been frantically trying to promote the idea that digital screens are becoming outdated and to establish preliminary “best practices.” Barring a few notable critiques, the discussions on invisible interfaces have thus far been mostly optimistic—perhaps too optimistic.

The arguments in favor of invisible interfaces are making a few key mistakes, namely:

  • Many are assuming that invisibility equates to seamless user experience
  • There is an assumption that an interface can be either visible or invisible
  • There is a conflation between interfaces in general and digital, screen-based interfaces
  • They are not taking in to account the vast amount of theory available about how humans interact with technology

In what follows, I elucidate these points through a discussion of Martin Heidegger’s analysis of technology and objects in the world, arriving at a new solution: transparent interface design.

Theory, Practice, Experience

The discourse around “invisible interfaces” has been mostly a binary discussion: either visible or invisible. But interfaces are not simply visible or invisible; like all other technological objects, they exist on a spectrum of functionality ranging from conspicuous to hidden. “Visible = cumbersome” and “Invisible = seamless” is a problematic distinction to make, as it implies that any piece of technology can exist fully in one end of the spectrum or the other. Interfaces are necessary modes of interacting with the world and its objects. To render an interface invisible is to hinder meaningful interaction.

Heidegger’s work represents a fundamental shift from previous models of self-world interaction based on a hard split between mind and body, to an embodied approach that articulates how knowledge and understanding are products of active engagement with the world. Interaction design and user experience have much to learn from Heidegger’s thinking. Perhaps one of his most influential, albeit understated, contributions to our current topic is the idea of goal-orientation. The idea that people interact with objects in order to accomplish certain goals comes directly from Heidegger, who also held that this tendency to fixate on future goals results in a state of being ahead of ourselves.

We might be tempted to take this kind of idea for granted, but its importance cannot be stressed enough. One implication of this is that active interaction with objects is a necessary component of achieving goals.

[W]e ordinarily manipulate tools that already have a meaning in a world that is organized in terms of purposes. To see this, we must first overcome the traditional interpretation that theory is prior to practice. [...] To understand a hammer, for example, does not mean to know that hammers have such and such properties and that they are used for certain purposes—or that in order to hammer one follows a certain procedure, i.e., understanding a hammer at its most primordial means knowing how to hammer.” (Dreyfus, 1991)

 

Hubert Dreyfus, one of the most vocal proponents of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, is using Heidegger as a lens to point out a fundamentally different approach to examining technological products. Instead of relying on theoretical modes of analysis, which have been the norm in philosophy since Plato’s time, Heidegger called for an approach focused on embodiment, praxis, and engaged interaction. We only come to understand the world through active manipulation of objects; the image of philosophers sitting around in circles discussing the mysteries of Being is a thing of the past.

There are degrees to which something is usable; extents to which an object … is conspicuous.

As Dreyfus puts it, knowing that a hammer is made of wood and metal is not nearly as meaningful as knowing how to use a hammer. In other words, meaningful knowledge comes from first-hand use, not theoretical exploration. Or as Paul Dourish explains it, “Embodied interaction is the creation, manipulation, and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artifacts.” (Dourish, 2001)

Systems of Objects

Can an invisible interface fit within the framework of embodied interaction? Taken to its logical conclusion, we can think of the myth of invisible interfaces in terms of a desire for radical immateriality, the urge to do away with interfaces all together. What is missed, however, is that active manipulation is necessary to establish a meaningful relationship with the object of engagement.

The natural user interface community has been working on articulating what it means to reduce the effects of an interface, as opposed to doing away with it completely. But it is easy to slip back into an argument that centers on the idea that there is a direct interaction with content that somehow moves through an invisible interface. If we can accept Heidegger’s claim that knowing how is more useful than knowing that, then we might say that even if users are able to directly manipulate content through an invisible interface, it might not be desirable to do so.

Could it be that Heidegger’s theory is simply outdated? Certainly. Heidegger’s work on technology was completed in the time of industrial machines, not mobile devices. There are definitely parts of his work that need to be rethought, as thinkers like Don Ihde have done. But most of Heidegger’s core thinking is still quite applicable, even if it needs modification.

Take the idea of “equipment,” for example. Heidegger posited that we experience objects either as present-at-hand or ready-to-hand (please excuse the awkward translation from the original German). Present-at-hand suggests that we experience an object from a detached, objective standpoint. This is the idea of knowing that, or understanding that comes from pure thinking without action. Ready-to-hand is the sense of embodied interaction, that knowledge and understanding comes from active manipulation, or knowing how. Traditionally, these two types of experience are viewed as either/or, with Heidegger arguing that the vast majority of experience is ready-to-hand, but in hopes of updating his thinking to a more modern discussion, I’d like to propose we think about these dimensions as a single spectrum rather than two categories.

A technological product is not simply usable or unusable—visible or invisible. There are degrees to which something is usable; extents to which an object of technology is conspicuous.

(un)Usability

Although different from invisibility, the concept of an intuitive interface is worth examining here. In this context, it seems that the desire to create an invisible interface is the myth of invisibility taken to the extreme. As I have argued—and as have others before me—calling an interface “intuitive” is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it implies that there is no learned behavior involved, that using the interface is somehow instinctual. Second, it assumes that there is an inherent meaning that can be known by a user, and therefore a designer must simply determine that meaning and embed it into a system. If semiotics has taught us anything, it is the meaning of a concept or object only occurs in context with other concepts and objects. So the idea that an interface can be invisible or intuitive seems idealistic. On a more concrete level, we should be designing systems that support active learning through interaction, not simply trying to do away with their more difficult parts.

Heidegger calls the act of dealing with an object’s shortcomings “coping.” Humans are constantly forced to accommodate for an object’s poor design, broken parts, unintended uses, etc. When a user encounters a mobile app, for example, that does not perform as expected, he or she faces a choice: adapt to its poor design or abandon use. As Dreyfus explains, the act of coping applies characteristics to the act rather than the object:

“When the hammer I am using fails to work and I cannot immediately get another, I have to deal with it as too heavy, unbalanced, broken, etc. These characteristics belong to the hammer only as used by me in a specific situation. Being too heavy is certainly not a property of the hammer.” (Dreyfus, 1991)

 

The common technological mode is one of concealment: the object’s true nature remains concealed behind its use. There is a difference between a mobile app that is caught up in active engagement with a user and one that isn’t. For an object to be usable, it needs to maintain some level of concealment. This concept of concealment lends itself nicely to the argument for invisible interfaces: if concealment is necessary for a user to act through an object to attain an eventual goal, then the interface between user and goal ought to be invisible. But this view flows into a binary opposition that implies usable interfaces are invisible and unusable interfaces are visible, or as Heidegger might say, conspicuous:

“We discover [an object’s] unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by the circumspection of the dealings in which we use it. When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous. This conspicuousness presents the ready-to-hand equipment as in a certain un-readiness-to-hand.” (Heidegger, 2008)

 

Notice that Heidegger is careful to explain conspicuous objects not as present-at-hand, the supposed opposite to ready-to-hand, but rather is purposeful to label it as un-ready-to-hand. This category implies that there is a middle ground between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand, a continuum between the two poles in which objects are not necessarily unusable but display a level of usability. Depending on this level, users experience the ability or inability to cope with flaws. Usability, then, has little to do with visibility or invisibility and more to do with the potential for creative coping.

Neither Visible nor Invisible: Transparent

It is clear that the dichotomy of visibility and invisibility is inadequate. When we look at the nature of the word “invisible,” it literally means that which cannot be seen. There is a strong connection to a human’s perceptive abilities but this says nothing of intention: the invisible object might be so either by design or nature. Bacteria are invisible to the naked eye by nature, while a book purposefully hidden under a blanket is invisible by design.

A related but significantly different word is “transparent,” which literally means “through sight” or “through appearance.” So the transparent object is something the observer knows to be present even though he or she cannot see it. Active manipulation toward a goal is still possible with a transparent object in a way that it is not with an invisible object. Take the example of a mobile device’s physical screen. We can see through the glass to the colored pixels that represent different types of information that allow for different tasks. But we interact through the glass; it is transparent but not necessarily invisible.

The transparent interface is one that allows both fluid interaction and active manipulation. It is neither intuitive nor invisible; it exists but is not entirely conspicuous. The user is aware of it and manipulates it to learn from it, acts through it to accomplish goals, creatively misuses it when necessary, and copes with its flaws.

The desire to create invisible interfaces or describe current natural user interfaces (voice, gestural, etc.) as invisible is a mistake. A change in vocabulary from “invisible” to “transparent” is not simply a semantic quibble; it is necessary to frame the discourse and mindset around better interface design. Invisibility is an impossible and undesirable goal. Transparency allows for movement, flexibility, and adaptation between different modes of interaction, which is necessary for modern systems design.

 

Image of rippling water courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Thomas Wendt is a consultant based in New York City, specializing in user research, experience strategy, product strategy, and innovation. Thomas is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary studies—all of which have a strong influence on his design and strategic processes. He strives for a deep understanding of the relationship between people and technology, as this relationship is what shapes product design.

He frequently teaches, writes, and speaks, on a variety of topics including intro UX, strategy, context-aware computing, philosophy and design, mobile UX, knowledge work, lean process and theory, and semiotics. His articles have been published in UX Magazine, Semionaut, UX Booth, and the Journal of Information Architecture (forthcoming). Presentations have been delivered both nationally and internationally at conferences such as Interaction 14 (forthcoming), LeanUX NYC, UX Cambridge, MidwestUX, FutureM, and a variety of smaller events in the NYC area. Thomas also teaches classes through General Assembly and independently for clients on topics such as Intro to UX, UX for Strategists, Research Methods, Design Thinking, and Product Ideation Methods.

Thomas lives in the NoLita neighborhood of Manhattan in a tiny, modernist-by-default apartment with his lovely wife, Niki. In his spare time, he enjoys seeing how many books he can fit on his shelves and lusting after furniture he can't afford.

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Comments

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While a super-interesting writeup of some issues, I think it might miss a key point. I strongly feel that the no-interface people weren't objecting to all screens and buttons, but to the over-use and assumption that digital=touchscreen. (I believe this because this point came up in that first get together at Cooper about NoUI and was clarified).

Instead, as I said, it's a reaction to the over-use of screens, and especially touchscreens with arbitrary amounts of functionality and affordanceless gesture. Who needs this sort of control on a microwave, or thermostat, or printer?

I think the discussion has also gone way too far, even when tempered like this, to being either no interface or a touchscreen. What about buttons?

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An overly academic response. I read you as advocating for Ihde's idea of technologies (or their interfaces) as mediators. In this way, they should allow for what Polanyi characterizes as attending-away-from (seeing through to the enabled activity), but when needed, attending(-back)-to (noticing the system without, or before, the system breaks down).

Not sure Heidegger should be the target here. He was trying to articulate a phenomenology of using gear in everyday life in order to open new ways of understanding existence that were less present-ful. He wasn't prescribing ready-to-handness as the way tools should be.

Heidegger is taken up as such by Dreyfus and students, especially Flores and Winograd in _Understanding Computers and Cognition_. But they end up advocating for systems that anticipate breakdown by clarifying the (social, not just instrumental) intentions of their users. They are systems that encourage self-consciousness not about the equipment being used (and its interface), but about the user's context and desires.

Which leads me to the main point. Coping is not just making-do in the face of break-down. Coping is also mastering. A piano player 'copes' with the difficulty of the keyboard interfaces and the result is Glenn Gould. Transparency, in they way I think you are describing it, is not only, perhaps not even primarily, the outcome of design; it is the result of the user making-habitual the interface, a painful and unnecessary process when it comes to anything Google seems to put out for instance, but a pleasurable process that makes humans feel that they are at their best when it is a tennis racquet or espresso maker or chisel.

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Thanks for chiming in, Cameron! Yes, I agree that Heidegger was not going for ready-to-hand as a model for how things should be. And yes, coping is much more than "dealing with." What I think is useful (and sometimes overlooked in much Heidegger criticism) is the role of un-ready-to-hand. This is where Heidegger really hits (ready for it...) nail on the head. In this tension between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand—or as I've been somewhat reluctantly calling it lately, smooth coping and pure intentionality—is a middle ground where most interaction happens. Classifying something as PaH or RtH is not very useful; but looking at the spectrum between the two poles, much like Ihde started to do, is where the money is.

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Amazing article Thomas. Certainly has a message that is 'conspicuous' yet ambiguous as it is still under the wraps of research.