Invisible Design

Design is a very complex subject and it has many definitions but one I particularly like is ‘to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully’ (  Design is a highly skillful activity and requires dedication and creativity. Good design is a process and one that is made up of many elements.  It is the successful combination of elements that deliver a great design that make it compelling, engaging and ultimately, invisible. The work of a user-experience designer has many challenges.  One of the biggest challenges we face is explaining to clients that our work, delivered well, should be invisible! Believe me, it can be a hard sell but it represents a great opportunity to help people appreciate the value of user-experience (UX) in the design process. We quickly notice things that are broken, faulty or confusing.  How often do you stop and think ‘wow, the air conditioning is working brilliantly’!  You don’t, because you expect it to work and like the majority of us can moan with a passion when it is not working. Ultimately, we are selling invisibility or making processes invisible.  The design aspect of a user experience design project (typically the user interface) can be compared to an iceberg. When we see an iceberg in the water, we only see the bit that is visible above the water line. The bigger part of the iceberg is under water – it’s just invisible!

Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible.  It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.

- Jared Spool


Invisibility is all around us

In a world that is totally designed there is a lot of invisibility all around us.  When we look at the world from a purely design perspective we realise everything has been influenced by design in one way or another from furniture to escalators, planes to skyscrapers, and cutlery to websites.  Everything, we have made since we first fashioned tools has been designed.

Various photos showing examples of good design

Great designs are easier to master

Great design lowers the level of mastery required to use it.  A great design may have been refined and optimised many times: constant evolution.  However, this refinement process should not limit the design.  For any design to gain mass adoption it needs to be individually accepted as ‘intuitive’.  A design that supports the goals and expectations of its audience will engage more people. Meeting people’s goals and motivations will help to make the design invisible and therefore this process of ‘designing-around-the-behaviour’ by its very nature can be considered a form of ‘persuasive adoption’. This is important because we are also lowering the level of ‘mastery’ required to skilfully use a technology and this in turn will make more people want to use it.  Therefore, a great design is invisible and will support people’s goals and expectations so they can use it intuitively.

Balancing the form and function equation will lead to great design that is invisible

Escalators The image above is an amazing and beautiful picture of escalators at Amagerbro Metro Station in Copenhagen. It’s a technology that many people use on a daily basis, yet it has an incredible amount of invisibility 'designed-in'. Don’t you find it strange that as a user of the escalator we don’t see lots of stairs (which is actually what it is)? However, when an escalator is not moving and we have to climb the stairs, the invisibility is removed!  The movement of the stairs is the most important aspects of the escalator which makes the stairs invisible. Obviously, we can see it moving but we just stand on it and away we go – it moves (escalates) us and we do not need to focus our attention on climbing (walking).  Once the stairs move they become invisible: we see an escalator. Escalators are amazing and the amount of design and engineering that has been invested in them is equally amazing.  Yet, the humble escalator is a fantastic example of invisible design because all the moving parts and the motion itself are invisible.  If website checkout processes could be a half as good (invisible) then buying would be easier so more things would be bought: it is a win-win.

There is no box!

Great designs should fit 'comfortably' around our needs, expectations and desires and it has the power to touch us deeply: great design can be inspirational.  However, design that forces and makes us feel uncomfortable and is not designed around us but rather we are forced into it is the antithesis of user-centred design approach.  The illustration of the isotope person squeezed into a box compared to an isotope person where the box fits around them serves to illustrate user-centred design.  The box that fits around the isotope person becomes invisible. When this happens something wonderful occurs: the box no longer becomes the focus but the isotope person e.g. there is no box! Isotope figures in a box

So what about websites?

When any of us decides to visit a website for the first time and do something on it, the website will succeed or not depending on how well it has been designed to support our goals and our decision-making processes. The level of design consideration required to achieve this success goes much deeper than the creative surface-level of the design – its ‘look’!  As with the iceberg analogy mentioned previously the bit we can see or touch is the much smaller piece of the design-equation.  Yet, so many people still make decisions about the interaction and user experience of a website or app based on its look. The convention is that ‘form follows function’ and there are sound reasons for this approach.  Mainly, because great designs will work much better if a deeper examination of the function that is required is undertaken.  However, many sites are still focusing too heavily on the aesthetic (surface) attributes and this can lead to confusing and complex interaction which ultimately turns people off!  What is needed is balance.  Great design very carefully balances the aesthetic (form) with the interaction (function) to deliver a more intuitive customer experience. In a recent research report we completed about e-commerce entitled ‘trust in the checkout’ we evaluated the UK's top revenue generating sites to understand whether the emotional aspect of the design had been considered (e.g. confidence and trust).  Whilst the majority of sites we tested have 'wised-up' about the value of usability few have really got to grips with the important emotional factors that can drive our decision-making.  There should be no doubt that trust and confidence are invisible factors and designers that consider them will deliver a better and more engaging customer experience! Coming from a psychology background I am driven by understanding human behaviour and ultimately this means I have to test behaviour.  The things we measure can often be considered intangible but it is understanding the intangible factors that help us to craft great user experiences that guide us intuitively, and support our social, cognitive and online behaviour.  The trick to designing invisibility into a technology is realised by understanding the small details as well as the important emotional factors that make a design engaging.

Designing great digital experiences that make us feel good

Websites that still place greater emphasis on style over customer experience are missing a massive trick that marketing folk have been applying in the real world for 60 years or more!  If you want to truly and deeply engage your audience listen to their needs, desires and expectations and design accordingly. Make people feel good and they will come back.  Make people feel bad and they will avoid with a vengeance – the psychology is pretty simple. So, if anything teaches us the new way of the web it’s the 80/20 rule. It’s the detail and minority factors, combined well, that website designers would do well to support and those that do will prosper: allow experience to become the greatest differentiator!

Focus on behaviour and the invisibility will get included

The design of a great digital experience requires the carefully blending of multiple disciplines and considerations.  A great digital experience speaks volumes – it makes you feel good about using it! However, it is important to note that it is not the result of one factor ‘standing out’ over all others but the combination of factors balanced together.  This is invisible design: balancing all the factors to create the optimum experience.  The important idea to note is that form (surface design) takes second place to the customer experience (the ‘function’ under the surface). So, by making the design more and more invisible we are focusing on delivering a better customer experience: This is a truly humanising technology design approach. In my next article I’ll share my reinterpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and touch on more of the psychological factors that influence the user experience.

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