Designing for Disappearing Interfaces

Considerations for 2025

David McGillivray
May 14, 2015 · 6 min read

by David McGillivray

That was Eric Schmidt talking on a panel about the future of the web earlier this year. He’s referencing a vision of the future which, not too long ago would have felt very much a work of science fiction. But today, we inch closer to this idea of architecturally integrated, living, breathing, dynamic spaces. The internet becomes something that’s omnipresent, instead of just something you click on.

As everything around us becomes inherently more dynamic, user interfaces will become more and more amorphous in their boundaries. And just as the internet will in effect ‘disappear’, so will our interfaces. We’ll still use them, but we won’t perceive them as separate, limited, defined spaces. They’ll be something far more integral to our experience.

The Disappearance

Images and video bound by squares, rectangular buttons, all these interface elements tightly wound and contained in neat little boxes are petering out. Huge fullscreen images regularly greet us at websites, and in mobile apps the whole canvas often becomes the button as we’re asked to swipe and interact. This expansion of boundaries will continue to grow until they converge on the reduction of device footprints, and we’re left with almost no visible device to contain it. Digital products will integrate seamlessly with our bodies, and our environment, not contained to visually obvious panels and screens but architecturally integrated, and able to be manipulated with ease across different surfaces with total fluidity. We’ll gradually start to forget that devices are even separate objects, or even really think much about where these interfaces spawn from. The interfaces won’t have edges, to the point where we’ll eventually consider the interface as the experience, devoid of device, rather than simply graphics on a screen.

So, what does designing for these disappearing interfaces even look like?
I’ve put together a few key thoughts on design considerations we’re already working around today, which will likely intensify as current technologies mature, and new ones emerge.

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As we look at the evolution of HCI, from command line interfaces on products like the Apple 2, where you’d have to type in whole lines of instructions in order to launch applications, to the Mac’s GUI, where you could double click on the mouse to launch apps, and now to touch devices where you can simply tap. The over all speed at which we are able to physically move through information in the interface has drastically increased. Ever watch someone else going through a bunch of un-viewed snapchats? I catch myself sometimes performing a strong ritual of taps to reload my twitter app to see the newest content. It’s largely muscle memory by this point. But just look how fast our hands and fingers are moving, and how quickly we’re digesting those screens and messages.

As new methods of HCI emerge with the prime goal of reducing interaction friction and making experiences as natural and human as possible, those interactions are only getting faster. This heightens the need for content and messaging to be ruthlessly clear in both content and delivery. We’re all conscious to write pithy copy when creating apps to keep users engaged and informed, but we can expect this need to be magnified to an excruciating degree as our interfaces start to live anywhere and everywhere, and we interact with them at an increasing pace.


With all this speed, not only comes the need for drastic distillation of interfaces, but with it razor sharp legibility. Usability issues will be felt like a slap in the face as we become increasingly integrated with our digital products, and legibility considerations are the obvious starting point as we evolve our interfaces into something more robust.

We can expect more emphasis placed on developing typefaces which are optimal for extremely fast reading or quick glances (something we’ve just started to see with Apple’s San Fransisco typeface for their Watch). Or perhaps we’ll even get to a place where type is rarely used and a much more icon oriented path is taken (wherever gestures aren’t appropriate). We already have a collection of relatively universally understood icons for common navigation, it’s not a stretch to imagine that vocabulary expanding to become a more comprehensive language able to communicate a broader spectrum of notifications or navigational queues.

Speed aside, what might be the most important legibility consideration is the context of the interface. Today we’re concerned with cross browser and cross device compatibility, but this complexity will be intensified as we consider the almost infinite malleability of the future interface. It could appear on a variety of surfaces, overlaid upon infinite canvases, or even suspended mid air. Our interfaces will have to work flawlessly amongst an ever changing backdrop. New best practices will be developed which will need to look vastly different to todays traditional screen based considerations.

Responsivity & Continuity

And all the designers groaned in unison when Apple released two new sizes of iPhone simultaneously — keeping interfaces in sync with the ever growing spectrum of devices and screen sizes is a mammoth task. But the notion of a responsive interface will be stretched as the canvas for interaction will become almost infinitely variable.

We’re starting to see the beginnings of cross device fluidity when you look at the continuity considerations Apple is starting to roll out for OSX/iOS. Right now you can begin typing something on an iPhone and immediately continue working on another device. Although this sounds pretty rudimentary, it’s the principles at play here which are key. Fast forward a little and this has evolved into effortlessly flicking a document over to a different wall, your coffee table, or pulling it onto your wrist. Our interfaces will need to be that malleable.

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Interface as Experience/Product

As the visual aspects of interfaces become so tightly coupled with the experience, there’ll be a need for designers with a deep understanding of the complexities of visual communication, interactions, and the product as a whole. The best digital experiences will be created by design talent who understand how to craft entire experiences from top to bottom. There’ll be an increased need for design to return to a more contemporary version of its roots — a singular, more holistic discipline, reducing the fragmentation of ‘ux’ and ‘visual design’ as separate roles.

Once the traditional, physical screen boundaries have dissolved, interfaces will become more and more like fluid, organic, living things in order to integrate with us and our surroundings in the most natural way possible. In the same way a user rejects an app with poor usability now, we’ll see an extreme of this once interfaces become the experience, as the user will be so closely integrated that we’ll feel the poor design decisions as foreign entities disrupting the flow of our experience. People won’t be talking about how the blue text of a button doesn’t look enough like a button, or how it’s hard to tap, people will be talking about how an experience/product makes them feel. Bad design will be received as jarring and un natural, and resonate through a persons experience to an increasingly invasive degree.

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Huge thanks to Rebecca Zhou.

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