Why UX Design Still Needs White Space

The important concept of white space and how it addresses the challenges designers still face in digital.

Lily Kollé
Jul 12, 2016 · 8 min read
Charcoal drawing of pine trees in the white mist.
Charcoal drawing of pine trees in the white mist.
Hasegawa Tohaku “pine trees” example of white space from Designing Design

White space is a critical concept in graphic design where white “empty” spaces around things and between things are essential to good design. In the increasingly complex digital and digital-physical space, designing experiences with digital white space brings much-needed focus to user needs.

White space between elements on a page provides a contrast to content. It gives things space to “breathe” and allows the focus of the page to be clear. Even the spaces within and between letters in typography are integral to the legibility of a typeface.

It sounds easy, but often when you are faced with designing a poster, all the “empty” white space compels you to “fill it”. Providing more detail when space is available is tempting. It is a difficult exercise to edit a page down to the essential elements and convey your point.

A white page with the Google logo, search bar, and Search button centered on the page.
A white page with the Google logo, search bar, and Search button centered on the page.
The Google homepage uses white space to draw the user’s focus and inform them how to interact with the page.

The Google homepage is an excellent example of the functionality white space can offer in interaction design. The user comes to Google to search for something. The white space on the page draws all attention to the center where the search bar sits, cursor gently blinking at the ready. The lack of distraction on the page only highlights the utility. It is because of the white space that we know intuitively what to do next. Considering this “negative space” in any type of design is fundamental to communicating how to interact with a product.

24 white porcelin bowls on a white table top. Each bowl is in the shape of a slightly different cupped cabbage leaf.
24 white porcelin bowls on a white table top. Each bowl is in the shape of a slightly different cupped cabbage leaf.
Silicone cabbage bowls by Yasuhiro Suzuki imply their function (to hold) with empty space.

Kenya Hara writes about the concept of white space in his book Designing Design. He explains that the Japanese character for empty contains the character for white. The two concepts of “empty” and “white” are tied together. Empty space is not considered a waste but rather an expression of potential. Like how an empty bowl informs you of its function; to hold things. Hara’s process and way of thinking reveal the great complexity in thought that can go into designing something simple.

This concept extends to product design. Naoto Fukasawa describes his philosophy of design as Plus Minus Zero. This means everything unnecessary must be removed, and only what is essential should remain. What results is often a beautiful, functional and minimalist product.

A photo of the white Muji rice cooker from above on a white countertop. The bamboo spoon is centered on the lid.
A photo of the white Muji rice cooker from above on a white countertop. The bamboo spoon is centered on the lid.
Muji rice cooker by Naoto Fukasawa

The Muji rice cooker is one of Fukasawa’s designs. Every detail has been carefully pared down to the absolute minimum. He considers how a person might rest their rice spoon on top of the rice cooker to avoid dirtying the countertop. The only design cue for the spoon rest is a slightly raised ledge opposite the button for opening the lid. Yet this is all that is needed to convey functionality. When you are holding a rice covered spoon you search for a place to rest it. You have just closed your rice cooker and there is a perfect ledge on top to hold the spoon. You might put your spoon there and never give it a second thought.

“People shouldn’t really have to think about an object when they are using it. Not having to think about it makes the relationship between a person and an object run more smoothly.”

-Naoto Fukasawa

This is an example of design fading into the background. It only enters your consciousness when you need it; it is useful and unobtrusive. The object itself becomes less important. Priority shifts to the person using it and their intent. When you use a well-designed product you hardly think about the product at all. It fits into your life effortlessly. The product becomes invisible and only the experience remains. Fukasawa was designing the interaction not just the object.

Most internet of things products have been designed inside the tech-bubble. The people who design and build IoT experiences are usually already imbedded in a technologically advanced environment (think: Silicon Valley, or any major city). People tend to make products that fit the context of their daily lives because they are experts in their own lives. As a result, interaction with IoT is heavily influenced by advances in technical capabilities rather than common user needs and real problems.

A gif showing various useless and annoying notifications from a “smart” umbrella.
A gif showing various useless and annoying notifications from a “smart” umbrella.
Notifications from a connected umbrella. Photo: Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal

Product companies are adding chips to their products with the intention of giving the user more options and features, often via an app. The Davek Alert Umbrella, for example, uses “Loss Alert Technology” to ensure you “never leave your umbrella behind again.” It does this by sending the “Loss Alerts” to your phone every time you lose contact with your umbrella.

This system isn’t smart. It sends these alerts even if you leave your house on a sunny day, or if your internet is interrupted for a moment. It creates digital clutter, the opposite of white space. Most people will see the inherent ridiculousness of an app for your umbrella and not buy into this product. This approach of tacking a chip onto a product and half-heartedly solving a low-level user problem is not sustainable in the long term for a company. These projects only survive, for now, in start-up land.

Check out this twitter account to get an idea of how just how bad this approach can get: https://twitter.com/internetofshit

A hand adjusting the nest thermostat to warm up to 72 degrees.
A hand adjusting the nest thermostat to warm up to 72 degrees.
Nest thermostat programs itself based on how you use it for just one week.

Another approach is to gather data that informs device behavior. This approach nudges the user out of the equation a little. An excellent example is the Nest Learning Thermostat. Users interact with Nest for the first week and then Nest takes this data and programs itself. The only further interaction is when the user corrects Nest and they do this by manually setting the thermostat, same as they would have done 20 years ago. This approach removes interactions from the overall experience and it takes a more technologically sophisticated device to accomplish that. The goal is to add white space to the user experience.

The first approach maximizes user interaction with the connected device (via an app and added features). The second approach reduces user interaction and gives the majority of the control over to automation based on data. Both allow the user to correct it when it gets something wrong, but only with the second approach does the device do the work for you.

Designing for white space doesn’t mean we reduce technical capabilities, it just means that we consider how much of that complexity is exposed to the user.

Just like the white space around the Google search bar, Nest’s automation and decisions based on usage data provide focus and a clear path for user interaction. Designing for white space doesn’t mean we reduce technical capabilities, it just means that we consider how much of that complexity is exposed to the user.

We can see that automation is one way to design white space into user experience. But there are many other methods to use. Here are three things you can start with to improve the user experience of your product/service with white space:

01 | Identify the core use case of your product.

The core use case has probably not changed since pre-connected devices. If you are designing a lightbulb, the main intent is to provide light. If it’s a thermostat, the intent is to heat a home. It is most likely the same function that the non-connected counterpart performs. Like in the Google home page example, you need to provide a clear path for the user to engage. Optimize the user experience for the core use case.

This experience needs to match or exceed user expectations to even be considered for purchase. Let’s take the connected light bulbs as an example. If your user can’t have light at the moment when they need it then they will stop having any interest in your product right there.

Now, look at how technology can optimize the core use case experience. Where can we use technology and design to remove tasks for the user? Match user needs to the appropriate technology. Be selective about the features you make available; just because it can do 50 different things doesn’t mean it should. White space is all about the careful edit. What do we absolutely need and what can we do without? User testing and rapid prototyping can help tease out which features are essential and which ones can go.

02 | Identify the points of friction.

Fukasawa observed his customer’s journey and identified the dirty rice spoon as a point of friction, and then designed for it. Draw out your current customer journey. Any areas where your customer has difficulty using your product are major problems. Tackle these friction points individually. Keep in mind that each touchpoint the user has with your product should strengthen the core use case and key features. Sometimes clever solutions to little problems can make a big impact on the user experience.

We noticed patterns in the types of friction points common to IoT user experiences and have gathered them in our article Eliminating Friction in IoT.

03 | Capitalize on the data you have available.

Wherever possible, use the data you have to inform how the device functions. What Nest does best is that it learns from every user interaction. It’s your job, and the job of the technology to do the brunt of the work. What remains is a simple and enjoyable user experience that strategically competes with both analog and digital solutions on the market. If the Davek connected umbrella could know when you have accidentally left your umbrella in a café, it would be a much better product. User data, when used correctly, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary interactions.

The concept of digital white space in interaction and user experience design or is about minimizing user interactions. Embrace the principles of good design to create an innovative user experience. Only leave what is absolutely essential from the user to get the task done. Utilize connected technology and data to inform device function. When all of these things have been carefully considered then all the complexity of how a device works fades into the background, leaving only magical, seamless, functional user experience. Nothing more and nothing less.

Lily Kollé is a design and research lead at the argodesign Europe studio in Amsterdam. She specializes in strategic design research and user experience for a variety of international clients. See more of Lily’s work and her design philosophy at her website lilykolle.com.

Ideal Design

Empowering designers to create for people and for a better future.

Lily Kollé

Written by

Lily is a Design Lead in Amsterdam and writes about minimalism and design. She is co-founder of Good Girls Club, where she writes about self-reliance for women.

Ideal Design

We believe designers share a responsibility to shape the future. It starts with sharing our aspirations and practices to design for people over paychecks.

Lily Kollé

Written by

Lily is a Design Lead in Amsterdam and writes about minimalism and design. She is co-founder of Good Girls Club, where she writes about self-reliance for women.

Ideal Design

We believe designers share a responsibility to shape the future. It starts with sharing our aspirations and practices to design for people over paychecks.

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