How do you design for the invisible?

Everywhere and Nowhere

A song comes on the radio as I drive home and it instantly unlocks memories of a trip to Ireland with my wife. Swiping two fingers up my arm, I add the song to a Spotify playlist and tap three fingers on my heart to text my wife that I love her. With temperatures rising earlier today and knowing I’d be the first one home tonight, I rub my hand down the upper part of my arm two times, notifying my Nest thermostat to drop the A/C by 2° before anyone gets home.

Sounds like the distant future, right? It’s closer than you think.

As far back as the Spring of 2015, Google has been in its labs working on Project Jacquard — designing connected thread; wired clothing that communicates with your surroundings.

When this type of tech becomes widely distributed and adopted, what is the interface? Better yet, where is the interface?

Project Jacquard might be in the niche space of fashion tech, but anywhere you look, emerging technologies are doing away with the need for keyboards or a mouse or even touchscreen interfaces.

Automated actions from beacons… Voice commands that change TV channels… Pizzas ordered with a Tweet… Laundry detergent purchased and shipped with the touch of an Amazon Dash button by your washing machine… These all break the confines of the traditional notion of “interface.” It’s fantastic. But where does this brave new world leave the User Experience Designer?

The widely accepted definition of “interface” as UX defines it is arguably only a decade or two old. It’s pixel dimensions and Retina displays and X-Y dimensions. User Experience and User Interface Designers have spent years honing their craft and perfecting the digital experience. Just when mouse interactions were approaching the sublime (remember Don’t Click It circa 2005?), along came touch interfaces, forcing an expanded vocabulary and library of gestures to sufficiently describe the intended experience. Even the world of touch interactions is turning upside down. Just as designers are mastering gestures like “pinching” or “swiping,” advances in iOS like ForceTouch are making them to consider what happens when pressing softly or pressing harder on a glass surface or trackpad.

Is it time to toss that learning out the window? Hardly.

While new mechanics and technologies need to be incorporated into our processes, core UX principles will always apply:

  1. Serve a need. Always design with empathy for the people you will serve. Do only what is necessary, not anything that’s possible.
  2. Design for interaction feedback. Without progress bars or spinning beachballs, what ways will you let someone know their waving hand “worked”? What feedback do you provide to a person’s voice command?
  3. Design for intent. Think about intended behavior and subsequent outcome. It’s less about information architecture and more about choice architecture.
  4. Don’t get in the way. For every interaction designed, ask, “Does this slow someone down?” While Steve Krug’s first edition of “Don’t Make Me Think” was written through the lens of designing for screens, the book title’s core tenet still applies.

As a UX designer, keep the “user” as the primary concern. While adopting new technologies is necessary, it should never be the issue. Start with empathy for someone’s needs and motivations rather than losing sleep chasing down the latest changes in technology. In the end, you’re still designing an experience that is relevant and delightful for people. When you’re doing it right, you’re listening to them first.


Note: The views above are my own and could be completely bonkers. I can’t help but notice things that could improve (and anything can be improved).