Zero UI: Digital Innovation for Humans, by Prasad Adavadkar

Have you had a bad user experience? You know, the kind of experience that makes you doubt your human ability to do very basic functions…like park a car, push an elevator button, or cross the street?

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of a good user interface (UI): it plays a critical role in the usability and success of a product or service. And with technology seeping into, well, just about every part of our lives, not to mention the billions of connected objects that are coming online, minimizing the processing load on the human brain (“how the heck does this work?”) is essential.

User interfaces are everywhere–websites, mobile apps, enterprise portals and devices ranging from standard office printers to sophisticated medical diagnostic equipment. Organizations spend a good portion of design efforts in making screen based visual user interface simple, intuitive and elegant. And yet, we continue to see poorly designed interfaces on “cutting edge” devices, with cluttered menus and arcane terminology.

And so, we are proposing “Zero UI” thinking. This mindset can potentially open a path for future products to become breakthrough digital innovations. Zero UI refers to a design thinking approach that assumes minimalist or no visual user interface for the potential product or business application.

It relies on embracing other kinds of user interfaces such as haptic, ambient or tactile to facilitate user interaction with the application and functional response. These kinds of interfaces are especially useful for inventing new category-defining products or re-define existing products.

Zero UI is already here

A few notable examples that manifests Zero UI design thinking include:

Nest Thermostat
Amazon Echo
Amazon Dash Button

Clearly these products open completely new circles of possibilities and inspiration to rethink our products and solutions. Zero UI thinking is a powerful approach to drive digital innovation in virtually all industries.

Zero -in on the application

A few companies are breeding success by applying Zero UI thinking in their design and test phases:

  • Personal Patient Assistant — A device inspired by Amazon Echo for use at home or in hospital rooms specifically to assist patients. Such a device may play music and news, call caregivers for assistance, control lights, thermostat and other connected devices in the room, remind patients to take medications as per schedule, and adapt to patient’s needs over time. It not only improves patient’s overall experience but also help reduce caregiver workload, enabling them to focus on more patients while reducing total cost of care for patients and payers.
  • Remote Physiotherapy– leveraging gaming platforms and devices such as Microsoft Kinect, the hospitals may design and prescribe personalized physical exercises for the patients as a part of rehab process. Patients may perform the exercises as prescribed at the comfort of their home, the “system” may track and report progress to patients and rehab specialist- who would then review and adjust the treatment regimen as necessary. This may help reduce the stay and trips to rehab facilities and ultimately reduce the total cost of care.
Jintronix’ Microsoft Kinect-based rehabilitation system
  • Smart Medication Management — Innovative products such as Vitality GlowCap™ and GlowPack™ (may re-launch in 2016) that provides new approach to medication management through reminders, social feedback, financial incentives and automatic refills. Inside these products, a chip monitors when the pill bottle is opened and alerts to the patient and caregivers. It provides both a visual and audible reminders at dosage time. A push button on the lid makes it easy to order prescription refills.

4 steps to zero UI thinking

As you begin your digital innovation journey, keep in mind four key steps in your approach:

  1. Structured ideation — One way to generate innovative ideas is to simply start by asking questions:
  • “How we may add non-visual user interface to redefine our product?”
  • “What if we eliminate screen-based visual user interface from our product?”

2. Co-creation — Explore options to facilitate user interaction in more natural ways such as voice, gestures or touch. Then prioritize few viable ideas for further exploration followed by co-development of a minimum viable product (MVP) jointly with digital innovation partners.

3. Pilot ideas -An early pilot in the field and customer feedback may help fail early and learn fast to refine the MVP. A structured and collaborative approach similar to Cognizant Digital Works, can help orchestrate and navigate through the whole process to craft innovative Internet of (really important) Things for your business and customers.

4. Scale the winners — A viable prototype is just the end of the beginning. To deliver digital at scale, you need to change how you create and manage your products and services in the most fundamental ways. You gain a digital infrastructure that links with legacy systems holding the organization’s knowledge and experience, with security and privacy in mind from the outset. And, govern digital programs that encourage invention, but add up to a seamless experience for the customer and efficient operations for technology teams.

While there are always going to be user interfaces in some form or the other, the notion of Zero UI is about getting away from thinking everything in terms of screens to interact with your products. While it helps generate innovative digital solutions, it also leads to several implications for product designers, user experience designers, engineers as well as product QA analysts.

The product teams need to embrace new thinking and skills such as non-linear and anticipatory user interfaces that accommodate asynchronous user interactions, context awareness, user behavior mapping, pattern recognition, data-driven algorithms and predictive modeling techniques.

I would like to hear your point of views, any potential initiatives in your organization that may benefit from Zero UI thinking and how may we help? Let’s talk.

Opinions expressed in this blog are of the author and may not represent Cognizant’s point of view.

Originally published at on January 4, 2016.

Prasad Adavadkar

Prasad Adavadkar is a Digital Marketing Strategist and Engagement Director at Cognizant Life Sciences Digital/Cadient. He helps progressive bio-pharma and medical devices…

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