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What is an invisible design? How can we create amazing user experience? What are some principles we can use that will help us delight our users? Have you ever wanted to know the answer on any of these questions? This article is for you. First, we will define what is invisible design. Then, we will discuss the 6 principles of invisible design and how to create amazing user experience.
The definition of invisible design
Have you ever heard some sentence starting with something like “Design is …” or “Design is about …”? If you like to read publications and blogs focused on any field of design, chances are that you probably did. There is almost an abundance of articles and short posts on this particular topic. Articles and posts trying to somehow define what should we think about when we think about design.
What’s more, there is also an abundance of people discussing the same thing over and over again. These people lead these discussions even though they probably very well know that they will never find a common ground. We could spend the next ten minutes discussing and outlining many reasons why discussions such as these are pointless. And, why they are only a waste of time. However, that would be pointless as well.
Instead, let’ think about the term “invisible design”, without trying to restrict it to one specific field. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we talk about graphic, web, audio, VR, AR or print. The main topic remains the same. We are still talking about design. So, what is the invisible design about? And, how can we recognize it when we see it? You probably heard about the [Ten Principles of Good Design] introduced by Dieter Rams.
When it comes to invisible design, there is neither a specific definition nor principles. Well, at least I haven’t heard about any until this day. All we have is just that intuitive feeling we experience when we see some example of invisible design. So, let’s think about these experiences. Then, let’s use our common sense to distill a number of simple principles that will help us define and recognize invisible design.
The principles of invisible design
Do you remember the last time you used something and you were immediately left in awe? You know, when you want to say something like “Oh my God”, “What the fuck?” or just “Shit!”. Please, accept my apologies for this strong language, but strong experiences and feelings require strong words. Anyway, can you think about one of these moments? If so, think about what those things that caused this experience had in common.
I think that we can think of at least six simple principles that could define invisible design. In other words, we can say that invisible design is forgiving, immersive, personal, simple, unassuming and unobtrusive. These six don’t cover everything. Meaning, there are additional properties example of invisible design should have. We will discuss these properties later. However, they are at least a good starting point.
Let’s quickly take a look at each of these principles. First, there is the forgiveness. Every user is only a human being. And, as a human being, is prone to making mistakes, or using things in a different way than they are designed. Example of invisible design should take this into an account. It should allow the user to make mistakes, help her recover from these mistakes quickly and show her what is the correct thing to do.
In other words, invisible design should always actively work with the user, not against her. It shouldn’t be passive. It should never leave the user clueless, let her repeat the same mistake over and over again, stuck on the place. Instead, it should help the user by suggesting a tip or offering a help, maybe some short documentation. Or, it should at least provide the user with information about what is she doing wrong, and why.
The idea is not about creating something that is flawless. That is impossible, at least until we remove the user. Instead, it is about creating a design the assumes mistakes will happen and every user will probably need a different amount of assistance or help. Some users will need more help to get familiar with the design. Some will need only a few clues, maybe not even that. It is about flexibility and the ability to handle various types of users.
The second principle is about the ability to let the user be immersed in the experience, in the current moment. All your senses are, in one way or another, immersed in the experience. This is harder to do in some fields of design. For example, we don’t have the option to include sense such as smell in web or graphic design, at least not at his moment. This doesn’t mean that invisible design is impossible in these fields.
I don’t think it is necessary for design to follow all these six principles. It is sufficient to follow just some and create amazing user experience. Therefore, it is not such an issue that we can’t work with smell, or touch, in web design at this moment. It is just one more constraint to work with. Soon, this constraint will be resolved. In the meantime, we can focus on the rest of senses vision, hearing … and intuition.
The third principle of invisible design focuses on the user as an individual. This means two things. First, the experience, as well as the design, are both customizable, at least to some degree. The user should be able to customize at least some attributes of the design. And, as a result, alter the overall experience. How much? This is hard to say. The user should feel like her experience is tailored to her, unique and special.
Second, the experience should get better with time, as the user is using it. The more it is used the faster and more significant this improvement should be. Today, this is possible thanks to big data, data analytics and [machine learning]. Let’s make one thing clear. The user should know what is happening on the background. We should ask for her approval to collect and analyze her data in order to improve her experience.
Invisible design should help the user create a personal relationship with the object or interface. I know that this may sound weird. Set aside some time and watch [Her] by Spike Jonze. You will probably understand what I mean after you watch this movie.
Invisible design should be as simple as possible but not simpler. Okay. What does it mean? The world is full of objects and interfaces that can be simplified so much they are really barely visible or noticeable and using them doesn’t require much knowledge or effort. On the other hand, there are also objects and interfaces that are very complex. And, it takes various degrees of knowledge and effort to use them properly.
On one side, think about pencil, chair, iPhone, iPad, Tesla, etc. On the other, think about cockpit or flight deck, power plant control room, motherboard, etc. In both cases, these objects could be probably made more simple, especially the examples on the side of complexity. However, that could mean that we would go beyond the “as simple as possible but not simpler”. This is not what I mean by simple.
As simple as possible but not simpler means that the object or interface is simple just enough. It is not too simple so it is hard for the user to understand how to use it. And, it is not complicated so it is hard for the user to understand how to use it. In other words, our goal is to find that sweet spot between simplicity and complexity. It is difficult to explain where this sweet spot is. What’s worse, it is case-dependent.
Meaning, it is on different places in different cases and situations. Here is one example. Think about a website. In the last years, there has been a trend to simplify some parts of websites. Navigation is one of those parts. A large number of websites shows either very minimalist navigation or they don’t show it at all. Yes, I am talking about the well-known “burger” menu. This is where we might go too far, sometimes.
It is true that elements such as navigation may not be as important as the content of the website. However, does it mean we can just get rid of it and hide it? In some cases, yes. In others, no. Some websites can work incredibly well, sometimes even better, when the navigation is initially hidden. Unfortunately, we can’t say this about every website and every use case. Sometimes, hiding navigation makes things worse.
This is the dilemma between simple and complex and finding the sweet spot, we talked about above. Making website simple doesn’t mean taking elements, such as navigation, away just for the sake of simplicity. Instead, we have to consider the use case at hand. We have to think about the consequences of making the navigation visible as default, hiding it or even removing it. And, we have to do this with every use case. There is no one-size-fits-all.
To summarize what we discussed, invisible design is simple, but this simplicity never harms its usability or user’s experience. Simplicity has to always only improve them. This is the sweet spot we are looking for, not too simple and not too complex.
Invisible design should be unassuming, undemanding and unpretentious. It should not put high demands on the user. It might be necessary for the user to learn how to use the object or interface. However, this learning phase should not take too much time. It should be shot, easy and feel natural. And, it should be sufficient for the user to go through it just once, not every time she wants to use the object or interface.
Think about your phone. How many times did you have to use manual before you could use it in the beginning? It could be once, twice or maybe never. This is what invisible design is about. It helps you get done what you want and without putting new obstacles on the road. So, when you switch to that object or interface you barely notice any change. It feels more like a fluid transition from one state to another.
This can make the object or interface almost literally invisible as it will almost merge with the rest of the environment. This is what it means when something unassuming. The user is still in the flow. There is no interruption. This can be hard to achieve since users use different object and interfaces and we can’t control them. What we can do is consider different use cases, scenarios, user journeys and stories and talk with users.
Then, we take what we’ve learned from our observations and apply it in our design. This will help us create design that fits the rest of the user’s environment better. There will be still some gap but the switch, or transition, from one object or interface to ours will feel more fluid, smooth and easy for the user.
We just discussed the idea of flow, almost uninterrupted transition between objects and interfaces. The sixth principle of unobtrusiveness is about similar things. This time, we are talking about fluid experience the use of the object or interface. The user should be able to use the object or interface, and get the job done, smoothly and easily. Imagine a moment you use something and the experience takes you into the flow.
There are no annoying distractions trying to capture your attention. You can fully focus on the task at hand and what do you want to accomplish. Soon, you even stop noticing time passing by. This is what a user should experience when she uses some example of invisible design. It may even seem to her that design is almost created as stream tasks, or flow, one following the other. One ecosystem and one holistic experience.
If user has to switch between screens the transition is barely noticeable. And, the same applies to the design itself. It should not fight for user’s attention with the content, whatever it is. This is not an invisible deign. In case of invisible design, it is the user, her goal and the content are always the highest priority, not the design itself. This also means that we have to carefully think about notifications, popups, modals, etc.
We should use these elements only when necessary and only if they are the only option. Meaning, when we really want to interrupt the user with something important. Otherwise, we should reach for some more subtle solution. There is already an abundance of apps filled with notifications for every type of message, no matter how unimportant. Let’s not add yet another one. Let’s keep it unobtrusive.
Epilogue: Invisible design
This is it. We reached the end of this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I also hope that you have learned a lot of new things that will help you take your designs to the next level and create amazing user experience. In the end, this is what matters the most. It is not the design and how nice something is. That is just the packaging. What really matters is the experience the user gains.
The final message? Remember two things. First, remember those six principles of invisible design we discussed today. These principles are forgiving, immersive, personal, simple, unassuming and unobtrusive. Second, remember that it is not necessary for your design to follow all of them. Or, to follow them all on 100%. That would be an ideal state that is unfortunately sometimes almost impossible.
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