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Transparent Interfaces

Designing fluid experiences, sans-screen-cruft

Transparent Interfaces

Designing fluid experiences, sans-screen-cruft


Just tried to explain what the floppy disk icon is for saving a doc to an 8 year old. Looked at me like I’m nuts. — Facebook friend

As I read over this post earlier this week, I started to think about how valuable Design really is. And not just good design, but great design. Design that enables you to solve problems. Design that helps you accomplish your goals. Design that feels intuitive, but in reality is just so dead simple that learning becomes transparent.

Design that you don’t realize has been intentionally designed.

I responded to the post, sharing my thoughts on affordances and the difficulty in creating semantic iconography for behavior that only exists in the virtual world, e.g. digital file versioning. The conversation then lead to the discussion of persisting state, i.e. performing actions like “saving” in the background auto-magically, helping you focus on creating rather than file management.

While traditional desktop software has been slow to adopt, web-based platforms have been pushing the boundaries in recent years using advanced, open-source technology like HTML5 and AJAX. Today, Google Docs and Medium are both great examples of how this type of idealistic workflow can change the landscape of creation and collaboration.

Google Docs saving automatically

As designers, this is the type of experience we should be aiming to create; interfaces that feel intuitive, natural, and transparent. But, all too often, we end up focusing on the details of the interface that we love to drool over at places like Dribbble and Behance. I can’t help but feel like this level of focus on transient design is more about personal pride than helping users solve problems.


Recently, the flat design era has brought us closer to this aim of transparency, removing the skeuomorphic cruft that has been built up over time originally to help us integrate technology into our lives more effectively. I’m not skeuomorph shaming; it’s a valid design technique that helps people adopt software by way of metaphor and affordances. But as we become more comfortable with technology, digital metaphors of the physical world should gracefully erode, allowing for new processes, behaviors, and meanings to be defined.

Design is all about communication. In terms of user-interface design, the goal is to facilitate problem solving through visual/digital cues. But if we take a step back and assess the true nature of the problems we are trying to help users solve, opportunities will present themselves to assist users with accomplishing their goals sans-interface.

“The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.” — Don Norman

I’m not calling for an end to interface design, but less of a focus on screen-based thinking. As designers, we should leverage technology, instead of catering to it in our screens and focus on developing systems that can adapt to user behavior, instead of adapting user behavior to the system.

As the interface takes a backseat and becomes more transparent, we can stop focusing on what icons should look like and their semantics, and instead help our users forget about the days when they needed to manually click an icon to do something as important as saving.