How should we be thinking about UX and interface design? What makes for great experiences?

Golden Krishna is a senior UX Designer at Zappos Labs, and is author of 'The best interface is no interface'.

Ahead of his keynote at tomorrow's Future of Digital Marketing conference in London, I asked Golden about the problems with screen-based thinking...

Can you explain a little about concept of your book (and presentation)?  

Our love affair with the digital interface is out of control. We’ve embraced it in the boardroom, the bedroom, and the bathroom.

Screens have taken over our lives. Most people spend over eight hours a day staring at a screen, and some “technological innovators” are hoping to grab even more of your eyeball time.

You have screens in your pocket, in your car, on your appliances, and maybe even on your face.

Average smartphone users check their phones 150 times a day, responding to the addictive buzz of things like Facebook or emails or Twitter. A recent survey in the UK found that the average smartphone user checks their phone 221 times a day.

Are you sick? There’s an app for that! Need to pray? There’s an app for that! Dead? Well, there’s an app for that, too!

And most apps are intentionally addictive distractions that end up taking our attention away from things like family, friends, sleep, and oncoming traffic.

There’s a better way. 

The book challenges our world of nagging, screen-based bondage, and shows how we can build a technologically advanced world without digital interfaces.  

In the raw and entertaining criticism, I reveal ways to think beyond screens using three principles that lead to more meaningful innovation.

Whether you’re working in technology, or just wary of a gadget-filled future, I hope you'll be enlightened and entertained while discovering that The Best Interface is No Interface. 

What, as you see it are the problems with ‘screen-based thinking? 

When the design process for new technology begins, it often starts brilliantly. Qualitative research is a practice embraced by smart designers that can unmask new opportunities, uncover unknown yet common problems, illuminate regular routines, and find those things that are actually important to the end customer. 

But then, so often, the creativity stops. The amazing stack of unique problems is forgotten. The rich pile of specific insights disappears.

Instead, from the unique opportunities emerges the expected. Organic insights are morphed into mechanical results. One-of-a-kind is turned into a square peg for a square hole. Because screens come before problems.

We learn fascinating things, then we draw a lazy rectangle. We start asking what generic pattern libraries we should use, and toss in a parallax scroll . . . or whatever is trendy at the moment. Like the hamburger icon.

We end up asking questions like, “How can we help this 82-year-old diabetes patient using this form field?” 

Ugh.

Unique problems don’t have generic answers. Yes, in some cases a graphical user interface is a decent solution. But so often we throw away our best stuff, our opportunity to do something new and different, the very moment that marker hits whiteboard.

Before we can even solve a problem meaningfully, we throw away the opportunity to do something better.

A screen is often a burden. An obstacle between you and your goals.

Alan Cooper—who brought user research to the software world back in 1992—once wrote to technologists:

Our most effective tool is profoundly simple: Develop a precise description of our user and what he wishes to accomplish.

What he wishes to accomplish is rarely to use a menu, a drop-down, or other outcomes of lazy rectangles.

3. You say the screen isn’t always the best answer, can you give some examples of this? 

I've been fortunate to have been speaking around the world about the idea of screenless solutions, and so excited to come to London and speak about the topic for the first time in England.

When in Australia recently, I ran across an ad for the Nissan Leaf. It took over an entire wall of the Sydney Airport. It read: "What If Your Phone Could Make Your Car Cooler?"

It was part of a global ad campaign. The Leaf is a fantastic car, but the focus of the expensive ad was on a screen. You download Nissan’s app from an app store, toss it into your sea of icons, and manually launch it when ready.  

How does it work? Here’s Nissan’s explanation:

Here’s the scenario: It’s a sweltering August day and you know you’ll be getting in the car in 15 minutes. Use your smartphone or computer to remotely turn on the air conditioning and voila, you’ll be entering a nice cool car. 

The steps in reality aren't easy: first, 15 minutes before you return to your car, you have to remember that your car interior is cooking, then you grab your phone, wake it up, unlock it, swipe through a sea of icons to find the app, tap to launch it, wait for it to load, and then tap through some tabs to open the climate controls to get the whole thing started...

Not simple. The powerful computer in our pocket reduced down to being a stupid universal remote.

Here's another way of thinking:

Mazda found that on a hot day in certain climates, interior car temperatures could reach up to a ludicrous 75°C. So, Mazda installed one of the oldest and most common devices to check when it’s hot: a thermometer.

When the temperature crosses a certain threshold, a sensor acts like a trigger, letting the system know your car is heating up. 

When that trigger is activated, small fans started to cool off the car. Instead of a screen, the system embraces our typical processes, and just automatically cools itself off with a simple computer system. 

And since the sensor knew it was hot outside, it could be assumed that the sun was beating down on your car, so Mazda installed solar panels on top of the car to power the entire automatic ventilation feature.

When you returned to to their cars with this feature, the system automatically cooled down your car without using any gas, and perhaps just as importantly, no interface.

By understanding the context, the car used the cause of the problem—the sun—as a solution to the problem. 

Smart.

How should we be thinking about UX and interface design? What makes for great experiences?

This is UI design: 

Navigation, sub-navigation, menus, drop-downs, buttons, links, windows, rounded corners, shadowing, error messages, alerts, updates, checkboxes, password fields, search fields, text inputs, radio selections, text areas, hover states, selection states, pressed states, tooltips, banner ads, embedded videos, swipe animations, scrolling, clicking, iconography, colors, lists, slideshows, alt text, badges, notifications, gradients, pop-ups, carousels, OK/Cancel, etc. etc. etc.

This is UX design: 

People, happiness, solving problems, understanding needs, love, efficiency, entertainment, pleasure, delight, smiles, soul, warmth, personality, joy, satisfaction, gratification, elation, exhilaration, bliss, euphoria, convenience, enchantment, magic, productivity, effectiveness, etc. etc. etc. 

Somewhere along the way, we confused the two. And instead of pursuing the best, most creative, inventive, and useful ways to solve a problem, we started solving problems with screens because that was our job description.

When we saw problems, we slapped an interface on it. UX stopped being about people, and started being about rounded rectangles and parallax animations.

UX design shouldn't be measured by shallow metrics like number of clicks and page views, it should be measured by the amount of happiness and the goals achieved by the customers. 

How can we create systems that work for individuals rather then just the average user? 

In typical digital software, our special qualities and unique life instantly fade away as the boxes, lines, and form fields of digital, screen-based interfaces come to the forefront.

Your routines are washed out by an art director’s stylistic preferences based on trends from a single moment in time. Your uniqueness is forgotten.

Some forward thinkers have started to take an opposite approach. They spend their lives studying unique patterns in the unceasing pursuit of solutions that are best for what’s most important: You.

New doors are being opened by applying robust techniques previously used for tasks like trying to predict chaotic stock prices in financial markets.

A new symbiosis between individuals and technology is just beginning, something that can create such seamless experiences that when the methods are applied to products thought to be at their peak, those products have been completely transformed. These people are working on ideas to create things that can continuously adapt to you 

If we know you well enough—that is, if we have the appropriate data set, ask the right questions, and use the correct lens to interpret what we observe—we can potentially give you what you need, when you need it, and all without you even asking.

By looking at you, the people like you, and how you compare with larger masses, we could understand what works best for you, how you’re different. And if we used those tools to tackle meaningful problems, the approach could positively impact your everyday life. 

This combination of cultural insight, transparent but moral data collection, predictive analytics, machine learning, computational thinking, and the statistical confidence to take action is a huge undertaking, both politically and technologically.

But when the time and money are allotted for it to happen in the right way—morally, transparently, and intelligently—the possibilities are endless. And when we leave the interface behind, we can make technology that adapts to a unique you. That way you smile. That awesome shirt. Finally, embrace you. 

What do you want to eat tonight? What’s the best way home? Data science is one way we can find meaning in all that cheaply stored information—whether big data or even small, relevant, searchable sets—and develop real insights and accurate answers to valuable individual questions. It could completely change the way we think of technology. 

If we know you well enough—that is, if we have the appropriate data set, ask the right questions, and use the correct lens to interpret what we observe—we can potentially give you what you need, when you need it, and all without you even asking.

By looking at you, the people like you, and how you compare with larger masses, we could understand what works best for you, how you’re different. And if we used those tools to tackle meaningful problems, the approach could positively impact your everyday life.

How does this thinking affect your work at Zappos? Have your colleagues embraced this? 

Hugely. I work at a company that started by selling products through a graphical user interface and via fantastic customer service.

But great thinkers adapt. Great companies offer their customers the best possible solutions, whether they have a graphical user interface or not.

Even if your company’s core product is an interface, not everything that comes after has to be an interface.

If things were that rigid, Apple Computer, the personal computer company, would have never become Apple Inc., the world’s largest consumer electronics company. If companies didn’t go after opportunities beyond what they do today, Netflix would still be mailing DVDs in red envelopes. 

I work at Zappos Labs, where we're envisioning the future of the company through long term strategy and experimentation.

Recently, I was the design lead on a project where we implemented RFID self-checkout at an expo for one of the world's largest races, attended by over 70,000 people.

It was self-checkout without all those annoying taps we face everyday in supermarkets and big box stores. The products were automatically scanned in while they were in your basket, or while you held them, and then you swiped your credit card. Super simple, and delighted our customers. 

That kind of thinking is new for the industry as a whole. I have found people who love the notion, and people who don't. Change is never easy. New, different, and better is rarely a simple accomplishment. 

Your book and the concept behind it must be controversial for many who are ‘screen-obsessed’. What kind of reaction have you received? 

I first published the idea behind the book in a blog post way back in 2012. Since then, I've given lectures across the world, and developed the idea into a robust book.

Along the way, there's no doubt been fascinating discourse. 

Some of those people bothered by the book have built robust processes around making screens and graphical user interfaces, and over the years they have gotten really damn good at it.

Maybe they’ve sold those ideas to clients for lots of money, shared those ideas at conferences or in classrooms around the world, and built their reputation around being experts in screen-based thinking. That’s how they earn their living; maybe that’s even how they made a fortune. 

So for me to say that what they are good at doing, what pays their bills, is actually the wrong way to go is definitely not going to rub those people the right way. It’s going to make them dislike this book, NoUI, me, and the phrase, “The best interface is no interface.”

I get that. That’s part of questioning the norm. Asking the industry to go in a different direction means some backlash. Change isn't easy.

For others, there's been intriguing discussions about privacy, failure of automatic systems, and other pertinent topics we unravel when we start thinking of screenless solutions. My email inbox has completely filled with all sorts of great, insightful thinkers as me questions about this philosophy and how they can bring it alive in their products and services.

Along the journey to this path there will be battles to be fought inside companies and classrooms, privacy issues to tackle, and other unforeseen hurdles.

But when the philosophies settle, the debaters come to agreement, the doers understand how to get it done, and the business plans start to fall into place, we could have something utterly revolutionary in our hands.

Golden will be presenting at tomorrow's Future of Digital Marketing conference in LondonWe still have a few tickets left for but you'll need to be quick... 

Graham Charlton

Published 10 June, 2015 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Morgan Jones

Morgan Jones, Digital Manager at Freestone Creative

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