Unraveling the myth of seamless design

Ulu Mills
MPS Seminar One
Published in
4 min readSep 30, 2018

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Since entering the field of design, I have frequently encountered the definition of good design to be that which strives to achieve seamlessness for the user. This has never sat well with me.

Our world is FULL of seams. Seams occur whenever there is a boundary between heterogeneous entities that must be crossed, so no interaction is truly seamless. Wherever there is communication, there is intention on the part of the transmitter and interpretation on the part of the receiver— and among imperfect actors, the two are never equal.

The designs we rely on most are a tapestry of infrastructures stitched together. At best, their seams are well-tailored and hidden, or so instantaneously navigated that the actors are hardly cognizant of them. Seamlessness is an illusion, and when that illusion is broken, it is a great source of stress for those who have not yet acknowledged the existence of their seams.

This is the Hōkūleʻa, a Hawaiian voyaging canoe whose crew relies solely on traditional navigation techniques to sail throughout the Pacific. The ways to observe and act according to the sea, wind and stars is passed down to new navigators in the form of a chant, and has since the beginning of Hawaiian history.

Without referring specifically to the notion of seams, Lucy Suchman spends a significant portion of her book, Human-Machine Regconfigurations, alluding to them in the form of the tension between a plan and a situated action. For me, the difference between the two was most palpable in the first quotation, describing the dichotomy of techniques among European and Pan-Pacific navigators.

For Europeans, sailing voyages had (have?) both an objective and a plan to reach it — plans either broad enough to account for multiple possible outcomes, or so prescribed that they are inevitably doomed to revision. Conversely, for the Chuuk people, only the objective was defined, and momentary actions were determined by the present situation. The Chuuk did not spend time plotting a specific course, but were rather guided to act based on contextual knowledge of their current situation.

Many are not comfortable with not having a plan. This makes me wonder if this is why happenings that fall outside of human plans are often perceived to be part of the plan of a higher power. Plans are a source of comfort, and without them (and eventually, despite them), we are forced to acknowledge that the world has seams.

Seeeeeeeaaaaams.

Janet Vertesi details the skillset involved with navigating seams in her paper, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction.” Here, she offers many examples of seams in a single workspace, and highlights the ways in which each is elegantly navigated.

One example highlighted how seams often go unnoticed: she details a “seamless” transmission of information between herself and her colleague Tim that involved acquaintances, strangers, and a variety of social media interfaces with specific constraints — all in a matter of moments.

Working across these infrastructural systems to produce a fleeting moment
of alignment, Tim accomplished the goal of seamless communication with
Henry.

Here, the “seamlessness” of the experience came not only from the tools afforded to them but from the actors themselves being able to traverse them situationally— an ability defined as much by their existing knowledge and experience, and the current circumstance. Thus it’s not really seamlessness that makes for good design, but rather the opportunity to gracefully navigate seams.

For several years, I studied kyogen, a form of traditional Japanese comedy. Like Pacific navigation, the mechanics of the form are transmitted orally through generations. Actors begin their careers at age three (their first role as an adorable monkey), and continue learning every role of every play in the repertory (over 600) until they make their debuts as masters at age 19 (their transitional role being the most demanding — that of an acrobatic fox).

A kyogen actor’s debut performance as a monkey (left).

Once they are deemed masters, they are no longer expected to rehearse at all for the rest of their careers. For a given performance, they are simply assigned a play and role, show up, get dressed and go on stage, playing off of their costars and audience, and deep knowledge of the form.

This is unheard of among Western thespians. Rehearsals are deemed a necessity for all involved, as a matter of safety and to ensure consistent quality of performances. On Broadway, the assumption is that each of a production’s performances will be of the same caliber as the last, entirely due to its meticulous rehearsals.

A kyogen actor's debut performance as a fox.

Inasmuch as Broadway is an art rooted in plans, kyogen is an art rooted in situated actions. The grace with which seams are navigated in kyogen are what make it the exalted form that it is.

Seams are sources of tension, but they are also what differentiate interaction from pure computing. They are what make the world interesting. So rather than claiming to offer seamless experiences, we as designers should strive for elegant seams.

Besides, what would we have without seams? Just… permanent enclosures? Endless tubes of fabric? Not interested.

Sources

Lucy Suchman, Human Machine Configurations, p. 25–84.

Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,” Science, Technology and Human Values 39.2: 264–284.

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