Disruptive Interfaces & The Emerging Battle To Be The Default

Scott Belsky
Sep 9, 2018 · 9 min read

A new battle is brewing to be the default of every choice we make. As modern interfaces like voice remove options, augmented reality overlays our physical world, and artificial intelligence gains our trust by transcending our own reasoning, DEFAULTS WILL RULE THE WORLD.

I’ve come to call them disruptive interfaces — drastically simpler and more accessible interfaces that ultimately commoditize everything underneath. Once powerful companies that have invested millions or billions in their brands, achieved dominance through network effects, or compete with sophisticated supply chains are vulnerable to losing their pricing power, differentiation, and being all-together excluded from the moment where customers make decisions.

In 2014, I shared some thoughts on how “the interface layer” would commoditize much of the technology underneath. I explained, “it’s not just about great design, it’s about the integration of the actions that make life easier and the commoditization of the services underneath…a shift in the economy that is driven by designers rather than cable executives, tech titans, and logistics masterminds. It is a “closed” user experience built on top of a wide open and hotly competitive ecosystem of services”.

What I didn’t realize was just how disruptive such interfaces would be. Like a game of slap a hand, where hands pile upon one another until the winning hand is the one that lays on top of the stack, a disruptive interface is one that, either by consumer preference or brute force, layers on top of other products/services and gains control of the end-user’s experience (and thus decisions). Disruptive interfaces are successful because they are simpler and offer a better user experience than the more clunky and complex systems they supplant.

Consider the massive increase in quality of user experience over the years for a simple task like buying batteries.

No surprise, your first option during a voice purchase experience is Amazon’s own branded batteries. Apparently the same goes for eggs…

New mediums on the horizon, namely voice and augmented reality — coupled with the rapid ramp of artificial intelligence, will do far more than save us time. They will eliminate browsing all-together by proposing a default answer for every need (and eliminating options). At first blush, this time-savings is a great benefit. But the implications are far reaching. As machine learning understands how we live and work better than we do, we will not only want but expect the best solution for every problem to be the default. As interfaces reach their own version of “singularity,” when they become intelligent and reduced enough that they stop offering choice and only present a single option (and execute it for us), being the default becomes the ultimate prize for every product and service.

Considerations & Implications: Consequences of disruptive interfaces and the battle to be the default:

Living By A String Of Defaults

Hardware Will Eat Software

Now, native operating systems that accompany hardware (Alexa, iOS, Android, etc..) have become increasingly coupled with underlying mobile services and offer native default experiences (vs. those powered by apps that users must opt into). Ironically, the hardware manufacturers that were once pitied for being commoditized as simple vestibules for third-party software will ultimately own the interfaces that rule our everyday lives. They may not own or operate the underlying services, but they’ll have more control over them — not less.

Digital Real-Estate Will Become More Scarce, & More Expensive

Own Your Own Wallet, Or Be Owned

This trend prompts a whole series of questions: Will every service that wants to own an interface (as opposed to be subservient to one) need to have its own wallet? Is there a limit to how many wallets we can manage, or will they work behind the scenes? Will some of these wallets offer their own currency? Will one wallet (like Amazon Pay or Apple Pay) offer advantages for loyalty as a way to keep us living within their ecosystem? I suspect loyalty will define the next generation of wallets.

In An AR World, What Sources & Notifications Are On By Default?

“The devil’s in the default.” -Dave Morin

Great AI Will Antiquate The Age Of Interfaces

“The perfection of data will, eventually, give rise to a world in which every consumer can be paired up with goods that meet his or her biological, rather than consumptive, tendencies,” writes Zander Nethercutt. Will we stop searching and choosing once we trust airtificial intelligence more than ourselves and feel “paired” with everything we need?

Implications For Customers, Brands & Commerce

It also means that we’ll all have more in common with each other when it comes to necessities, while striving to differentiate ourselves when it comes to auxiliary purchases. I think we’ll become more brand agnostic (lowest price, fastest option) for stuff that doesn’t define us, and develop stronger brand preferences for anything differentiating (fashion, experiences, relationship-driven services, and value statements). So much more is liable to become commoditized, from fine foods to ride-sharing, entertainment services, media, and more. In the future, we’ll have all the basics provided by just a few sources, but will define ourselves by a long-tail of purchases from niche, local, and highly personalized brands and providers.

Consider these quotes from Julie Creswell in the New York Times on the rise of Amazon’s own in-house brands (first brought to my attention from M.G. Siegler’s newsletter):

“Around 2009, Amazon quietly entered the private-label business by offering a handful of items under a new brand called AmazonBasics. Early offerings were the kinds of unglamorous products consumers typically bought at their local hardware store: power cords and cables for electronics and, in particular, batteries — with prices roughly 30 percent lower than that of national brands like Energizer and Duracell. The results were stunning. In just a few years, AmazonBasics had grabbed nearly a third of the online market for batteries, outselling both Energizer and Duracell on its site.”

“About 70 percent of the word searches done on Amazon’s search browser are for generic goods. That means consumers are typing in “men’s underwear” or “running shoes” rather than asking, specifically, for Hanes or Nike.”

“Grundy said when the contract for the AmazonBasics batteries, which are made by a manufacturer in the Far East, next comes up for bid, likely bidders could include Energizer and Duracell.”

An Opportunity & Responsibility For Designers

The best product designers look for ways to eliminate or streamline choices, leverage existing patterns and muscle memory to make products familiar, and develop a better “first mile” experience. They must also take great care in determining the defaults. Most consumer products report that 90% of customers keep the default settings they’re given rather than customize their experience. Over the years, there have been a few attempts at a “Designer Code Of Ethics,” and I would propose that the modern version should include guidance on communicating the presence of artificial intelligence and the sources of the choices you’re seeing (or aren’t seeing).

As modern interfaces emerge that are simpler and artificially intelligent, a largely invisible yet heated battle is brewing across every product and service to be the default that you see and hear at the interface layer — the customer-facing surface where decisions are made.


Follow Scott on Twitter, get the latest book — The Messy Middle, read recent posts on the attack of the microbrands and crafting products in the middle, or sign up for an infrequent newsletter summary of insights.

Positive Slope

Insights on crafting products, teams, and progress.

Scott Belsky

Written by

Product Obsessive & Investor; Chief Product Officer, @Adobe; Founder, @Behance; Venture Partner @Benchmark, Author Making Ideas Happen http://scottbelsky.com

Positive Slope

Insights on crafting products, teams, and progress.

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