Beautiful Seams: Why Seamless Designs Aren’t the Answer

Lee Gordon
May 12, 2015 · 5 min read

You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone’s busy. It’s no revelation that attention is a scarce resource. And let’s face it: computers are needy. The good news is, designers are uniquely positioned to create solutions that begin to break apart the culture of distraction born out of our co-dependent relationship with computers. I’d love to design a world where people aren’t perpetually waiting for something better to come along via push notification. Wouldn’t you? A lot of people think the solution is to design seamless systems. I disagree.

Where it all began. Well, a lot of it.

Back in 1996 the guys at Xerox Parc were acutely aware of the stresses caused by human to computer interactions (HCI). Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown saw a way to change course. They did so by framing modern computing into a progression of ages: the age of the mainframes, the age of the PCs and then an entirely new period: they called it, “The Coming Age of Calm Technology.”

Calm technology isn’t a specific type of device or software. It’s better described as a new way of approaching device and software design. Calm technology integrates information into everyday objects and behaviours. It’s peripheral when we don’t need it and focused when we do. Instead of being tethered to a desktop computer, or ever-distracted by beeping and buzzing devices, we would be free to interact with the world on our terms. We would stay informed without the stress.

An early example of this technology at work is by artist/engineer Natalie Jeremijenko. It’s called The Dangling String and it demonstrates how information can be delivered subtly, yet unmistakably and without the need for a graphic user interface (GUI). Here’s how it works: a piece of plastic spaghetti is attached to a motor monitoring network activity through a computer. When bits flowing through the network reach a certain threshold, the computer tells the motor to spin, creating movement in the plastic. As activity increases, so does the rate of spin, causing more movement than before. An onlooker who understands what’s going on can easily comprehend the amount of data passing through the network. The real beauty here is that they don’t even need to look directly at it. People can grasp all of this information from the periphery of their vision, no reading required. Cool, right?

The Nest Thermostat

More and more of these types of devices have developed over the decades. There are umbrellas that light up when it’s going to rain. Nest thermostats turn the heat down, or the air-conditioning off, when no one is home. These are all great innovations, but I think they’re too few and far between.

Almost There

Accelerometers, barometers, NFCs, oh my!

We carry a pretty impressive array of sensors around in our pockets. Smartphones are packed full of them; they that tell our devices if we’re moving and how fast, if there’s sound, heart rate, whether there’s light and what colour that light is. The list goes on.

One great usage of these sensors are called “back pocket apps”, an excellent concept coined by Golden Krishna in his book, The Best Interface is No Interface. Why get out your phone if you want to order a coffee? Why doesn’t the phone tell the coffee shop you’re on the way? You can do that with sensors and smart phones. The guys at Square Wallet experimented with such a feature in their payment system. With it, you could do things like have your coffee shop pre-make your usual whenever you were in a certain proximity. That way the barista could have your mocha-cocha-chino ready as you walk in the door, then email the receipt to you. I never saw it in action, but it sounds pretty great.

Or does it? What if you forget to turn this feature off, and accidentally pay for a coffee you don’t want? If designed incorrectly, this approach could lead us to yet another frustrating age of technology. Timo Arnell talks about how these types of seamless systems have the potential to be pretty annoying. If we remove the interface at the wrong time, we remove the ability to understand how things work. If something goes awry, we can’t easily understand the source or fix the problem. We should remember that Wieser’s vision expressly warned against seamless systems. He wanted to see “beautiful seams”. This is because it’s often the seams that carry the information we need. If a “smart umbrella” were to open automatically when it’s about to rain, that would suck. This is why a light up umbrella is a better solution. The lights are seams that carry information about the weather, information that we can understand in our peripheral vision. This empowers us to decide what to do next. Effort causes stress for sure, but lack of information probably causes more.

Alright Smart Guy, What Next?

We need better design tools. Wieiser and Brown gave us a great frame of reference, and Krishna has developed processes and heuristics to get us that much closer. But the standard tools: Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, etc, are only strong in creating screen interactions and flow charts. Arduinos get us a little closer, but they are pretty inaccessible for most designers. We need designer-friendly tools as easy to understand as Photoshop, with some of the sensor-driven physical computing wizardry of Arduino.

So far, the closest I’ve seen is HENRI which stands for hardware enhancing a natural responsive interface. It’s is a device developed by Method as a tool to help designers prototype and test interactions that deliver information without a screen. Sounds pretty calm, right? That’s awesome. What’s not awesome is that even though it was developed with Arduino (so far as I can tell from the photos), the source is not open. Yet. I tweeted Daniel Nacamuli, the lead interaction designer on the project, to see if it’s in the works. Daniel said, “we’re figuring it out, it might be in a different form, though.” Fair enough.

But let’s not let that stop us. We’re designers. We’re resourceful. We can make our own tools and we should. Hell, there’s probably people out there who already are. If that’s the case, please contact me. I want to hear what you’re doing and I’d love to help. Let’s make Weiser and Brown’s vision a reality. Let’s make the age of calm technology happen.

Lee Gordon

Written by

A Texan living in SF. I practice experience design, train my labradoodle, tell stories, and search for truth. Howdy.

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