The Myth of Invisible Design

One of the most persistent myths in design is that “the best designs are invisible.” There have even been books written about how to make your design more invisible, claiming the best UI is no UI. All of these seem to spring from the Don’t Make Me Think school, where usability and efficiency are the highest values we can achieve in design. While these are certainly important, products should be as visible as they need to be. There are thousands — nay, millions — of examples of beautiful, visible designs.

First, a little design philosophy. What a lot of people mean when they talk about invisibility is Heidegger’s notion of “readiness-at-hand” vs. “present-at-hand.” When you’re using a tool to do something and you aren’t aware of it, that’s readiness-at-hand. As an example, think of writing with a pen. But when you’re aware of the tool as a tool, as an object itself, that’s “present-at-hand.” If the pen runs out of ink, you become cognizant of it as an object in your hand. As a general interaction design principle, striving for readiness-at-hand is usually a good thing. When the tool is present-at-hand, you’re usually fumbling around with it, trying to figure out how to do something with it.

Here’s the catch though: over time and through repeated use, even some of the worst designs can become ready-at-hand. Many years ago, I watched customer service employees working an insane command line/function keys/tabbed green screen interface while on the phone with customers without missing a beat. And when I asked them what could be improved with their system, they didn’t have a good answer because this nightmare system had become second nature to them. Readiness-at-hand is not necessarily the mark of good design.

What is? When a product’s present-at-hand (its form and appearance, especially when idle) not only doesn’t interfere with its readiness-at-hand, but improves or enhances it. A classic example of this is the original iPod click wheel. Its appearance and the way it worked enhanced how it worked. The design was visible — in the best way. When the product itself is so pleasurable to use it makes the activity more pleasurable, that’s good design.

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. William Morris

Every car can get you from place to place, but a Ferrari will cost you more than a Kia. You’ll have readiness-at-hand driving a Ferrari and driving a Kia, but the experience — which I would argue is a combination of readiness-at-hand and present-at-hand — will be decidedly different (and, not inconsequentially, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more). This is not limited to luxury items either. Something as simple as a potato peeler can accomplish this as well. A good product can change the experience of doing a task for the better. And isn’t that what experience design is all about?

Not only are visible designs potentially more valuable, they are potentially more usable as well. What we can see, we can appreciate and value, even if we’re not using it. The depth of a product like Amazon’s Alexa is not immediately apparent, because its voice interface is invisible. In removing all present-at-hand, they also removed some readiness-at-hand. This is true of all voice and some gestural systems, as well as “chat” UIs as well. Some friction, some visibility, can be good for usability. If you can’t figure out how to use a product, its invisibility is useless. This is why you see stickers on the front of automatic hand dryers, instructing how to gesture to turn them on.

Sometimes, making things invisible is downright harmful. Hiding information and controls — even when infrequently used—can be very disruptive. The classic example here is Microsoft’s adapative menus, which hid menu items when not frequently used. This caused all sorts of havoc.

There are three great design themes: making something beautiful, making something easier, and making something possible. The best designs accomplish all three at once. This might involve making parts of the product invisible. But it might not. The best products are as visible as they need to be to make the activity better.