In the future, there will be no interfaces

By Massimo Fiorentino

How having no interfaces will radically change the way we think about products and services. And what we need to take into account when designing technology for tomorrow’s interconnectedness.

Right now, User Experience Design is a varied field but mostly associated with the user experience, revolving around interfaces. Of course, customer journeys, mappings, surveys, workshops, data mining, strategies, KPI’s and more, is laying the foundation for many kinds of projects in a UX designer’s line of work. However, for now it mostly ends up becoming some sort of interface. Whether it is something on a web page, a tablet, a membership card registration at a POS, a receipt in a customer service “package” or the like. For now, the technologies we surround ourselves with are represented by interfaces at some point or another. However, this will change soon, and it will profoundly impact both our lives and the work going into any given project.

Nicholas Negroponte already hinted at the experience economy back in the late 90's. Image by Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because as our world becomes more and more automated, so does everything in our environment. From the autonomous car to the smartphone in your pocket, the watch on your wrist, to your fridge or even your shoes. Just as Nicholas Negroponte already hinted at in his book “Being Digital” in 1995. If we put manufacturing and service robotics aside for now, in the future, your fridge will tell your shoes that they should direct you towards the grocery store for more milk when you are leaving work. Perhaps your car will know exactly how to react and adjust to your partial blindness, assisting you with driving, if you loose one of your contact lenses during your commute. Robots will be able to build stuff themselves, packed with technologies that in the future will no longer require your or any other human being’s input. Hence, the interface will become transparent, or practically non-existent. Don’t take my word for it. Luciano Floridi already hints at this in his brilliant book “The fourth revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality”, which I highly recommend. In there he talks about how this will change the very way we live and navigate in our societies, stuffed with interconnected technologies. He addresses the fact that we will be living “onlife” because

“In the near future, the distinction between online and offline will become even more blurred and then disappear.”
Image by woodleywonderworks (CC BY 2.0)

He also philosophises about the moral and social repercussions of this new paradigm, but I will stay in my corner and look at it from a UX Designer’s perspective. Especially because this new automatisation paradigm paired with us being constantly online will inevitably change the User Experience, where the focus will shift from user input to user immersion. Your environment will learn from you and adapt to you automatically, and you will practically not even once have to set up your preferences towards all the stuff in your surroundings. So this leaves us with equally new opportunities as well as with new challenges.

1. You will constantly adapt to the user’s “onlife” environment

Firstly, all UX design will no longer be singular. This means that it will have to adapt to the user’s environment and his or her protocols. In this, I mean the “motors” that drive the technologies embedded in things — another term from Floridi’s book. You will no longer have to understand your user, but also your user’s (technological) surroundings and its inner and outer workings. This means that you will be designing behaviour, more than just the utility or service itself — as a standalone unit.
Will your “Grocery app for the fridge” work in conjunction with the user’s car? Her smartwatch? Perhaps even her shoes? In what way? Also, when will the reminder to pick up milk be triggered? How will it be triggered? Does your user like soft sounds or loud alarms? How will you figure out? Via preferences set in other protocols or by listening to the user’s radio preferences — soft classical or loud Acid Crunk? Should this differ from sounding in the car to notifying her via the smartwatch? Should it differ from dawn till dusk? What if the user prefers ordering online? Should the fridge then just order it altogether? Will you even then still need to notify your user?

Luciano Floridi believes that technology will be blended so much into our lives that it will be inseparable from us. Photo by Mirella Boot (CC BY-ND 2.0)

You will unquestionably have to learn behavioural and protocol patterns, and adapt to them. Moreover, this will be expected of you. We already see this on a minor scale with smartwatches and smartphones combined with geolocation and automation like the ones found in IFTTT or Workflow. Where it now is up to the more accomplished technologically inclined person to master, it will without doubt explode as soon as we detach the user interface from the applications. So this will become a critical challenge for the designer, and the epicentre of almost any business model.

2. Utility and story design will be your main focus

Because Secondly, companies will become more and more reliant on utility and story design. Also, service design and “transparent” UX design will be deeply embedded into the foundation of any digital product or communications strategy.

Image by Carli Jean

Example: The coffee owner who ‘injects’ the correct amount of transparent utility design, i.e. unobtrusively offer just the right amount of customer service, will win over the one who doesn’t. For instance, I might buy my first coffee at this place I have not visited before. My smartwatch picks up the bill without me touching anything because the watch already knows (via a different protocol) that I gladly give my money away for any good coffee. Then the coffee owner’s payment system picks up on this when my cup leaves the desk. Then I get a small greeting on the watch with a thanks and a note saying that 5% of my bill will go to support for sustainability in the neighbourhood where I live. The stereo system in the coffee shop recognises me as the only brand new customer in the room, looks up my favourite track and plays it while I sit down. I enjoy the good coffee, the amount of sugar perfectly balanced (of course a prerequisite, taken from my personal sugar habits). Meanwhile, I also admire the surroundings, impeccably designed as a 60’s coffee joint where the staff have been dressed accordingly. The story design being something that attracted me in the first place, which my car directed me to because it knows I like this kind of thing. Then I tell myself that I will return here, and as an acknowledgement, I post a picture on my preferred social media. Not needing any hashtags or the like, since all systems already know where I am, why I am there and how I like it there. I write that I love the donation thing. The next time I enter the shop, the owner will be reminded that I like a good cup of cortado. Then, when I check my bill, I will have been given a small rebate that turns into a donation. Because the shop now indirectly knows that I can pay the bill and love to support my local environment.
So I have not done anything but drinking a cup of coffee and taken a picture. And everything else has been done for me by my protocols, and the shop’s owner, and his protocols, all in the background.
This is just one of many use cases: Think of tax payments, daily shopping, transport, doing laundry, hazard prevention, community support, property maintenance, crime fighting — you name it.

3. Design and rate success by intent and outcome

The downside is, of course that the customer service implementation curve will be steep because you will be forced to figure out all connection points. Not only in the user’s environment but also in the surrounding protocols, so small business owners with little capital may suffer. This may also change once new standards are made related to all the protocols that will be needed. Also, with the speed we will be able to implement them with, and with the inherent connectedness they may have. Think of the different competing technologies for the smart home and beyond, such as Apple’s “HomeKit” or Samsung’s “SmartThings”.

Siemens with a connected fridge. It has two cameras inside, which do pictures when the fridge is opened. These picts will be streamed to your home cloud and you can check it in the supermarket. Image and description from CODE_n (CC BY 2.0)

However, everything will still need to be geared towards intent: What do your customer want to accomplish right now, and how can this be solved? Is it about searching for information? Location? Something to do? Something to buy? Perhaps a combination of these? Unobtrusiveness and adaptation to the attention span of your user will be critical factors for a successful interaction and implementation. Today, we mostly measure success in getting the most attention out of our apps and technologies. However, a new paradigm in service design and its success rate will be needed to integrate almost non-visible services successfully into people’s lives. So instead, we must measure profit by other factors, such as the overall positive or negative outcome or simplicity of our service, not just the usage or consumption of it. Think of Apple, who right now are the leading force in 360° service design. From the elegantly designed and user-friendly interface when you first turn on an iPhone, to their utmost service-minded online support chat. Of course, they are dependent upon sales, but the key driving factor at Apple is user-friendly technology, not the amount of users they have. Dieter Rams’ ten design principles will be highly significant, even if users will not be able to interact with your service as we know it today. And anthropology will play a major part in shaping both products and experiences in the future, just as — for example — Intel is using it to shape their innovation. Without some kind of anthropological insight, you will not be able to succeed in embedding enhancements in people’s lives by technology.

Image by Frédéric BISSON (CC BY 2.0)

4. Transparency must be enforced at all times

Fourthly, transparency will become a major factor when designing in 360°. What data will be used? How will they be used? Making sure that data ethics will be taken into consideration is a must. What if one person is more off the grid than another? How do you treat them individually? How do you opt in, or out? Making sure that users can enforce the right to control the access, recording and usage of their information at any circumstance will have to become a major issue in designing services in the future. Especially if interconnectedness of data will be as natural for us as breathing. I am not talking about centralisation of data collection because one might want to share data in one place but not in another. Today, one person might be more private on Facebook than, say Google Plus. So in the future, making sure that individual needs for privacy can be catered to, even when frontends and interfaces are disappearing from the user experience, is a new challenge to take up. Can we learn from user behaviour, how sensitive and insensitive data should be treated? Moreover, when and how do we if then needed, interrupt the user flow, to set the right preferences? Also, where do we draw the line to both fulfil our service design while respecting our user’s privacy? These are questions that need to be asked every time we develop a new service, whether it is an app, a smartwatch, smart clothing, smart service design, smart home, smart car, smart-whatever. Also, a certain kind of sensitivity must be implemented when we are talking about centralisation of data, especially from governments. We are already feeling the heat regarding this (Snowden et. al.), but when everything is data and protocols, we have to be extra careful.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5)

So interfaces will, with almost no doubt and with few exceptions disappear, if not entirely, then almost, as seen from the user at least. Systems engineers will still be needing them to set the behaviour and preferences of any given service or protocol. Also, there will surely be interfaces where there is no other way than for a human being to be in control, practically as well as morally (think of weapons for instance). Moreover, even if artificial intelligence will take over much of the tedious work, humans will still become the center of input and output. However, from most user’s point of view, almost all interaction will become automated and/or invisible. Only the desired outcomes of any given service or the interconnectedness of services will be measured up against each other. It will then be up to the user experience designers to lay out the garden so that the smart ecosystem is intact while pleasing both what is seen and what is going on underneath the soil.