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of the interaction design community has been frantically trying to promote the idea that digital screens are becoming outdated and to establish preliminary “best practices.”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.
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.
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.