The Future Of UI Isn’t Invisible, Nor Is It Seamless

Berg Creative Director Timo Arnall explains why the future of UI isn’t what we’ve all been calling it.

I’m as guilty of saying it as anyone else—mantras like "the best interface is no interface at all"—that attempt to explain why I find Microsoft’s recently proposed vision of the future so abhorrent.

But Timo Arnall, creative director at Berg (makers of brilliant, tangible electronics like Little Printer and these Google concepts), wants to correct our poor design vocabulary. In a pretty fantastic open letter, he argues that while we all want to escape the screen, "invisible" and "seamless" design aren’t the end game. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

Invisible design propagates the myth that technology will ‘disappear’ or ‘just get out of the way’ rather than addressing the qualities of interface technologies that can make them difficult or delightful.

Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments.

As systems increasingly record our personal activity and data, invisibility is exactly the wrong model.

The problem, no doubt, is that most of us have begun to equate "user interface" with "graphical user interface." We’re so sickly accustomed to this one mode of interaction with the digital world—trapped behind the screen—that we’ve gotten a bit loose with our definitions. We really do want most GUIs to disappear—or at minimum—we don’t want to be clicking Xs to close windows when making coffee in the morning. But that doesn’t mean the user interface will ever go with it. After all, we need to use things, and everything we need to use should have a clear means to interact with it.

So no, the future of user interface isn’t no interface at all but a series of interfaces that complement the world around us and them. They’ll live alongside us, maybe not seamlessly, but stitched with incredible intention.

Read more here. (There’s a lot more nuance to his argument, so definitely check it out.)

[ILLUSTRATION: Orange via Shutterstock]

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  • James Griggs

    It's so funny to me that this information is considered new. Timo Arnall's letter is good but its just not that profound.   I'm glad people are thinking about it and that Fast Co is writing about it.  To me this article feels like when your mom discovers a cool YouTube video that's been out for a couple years and she thinks its new.

    I do like the statement "The problem, no doubt, is that most of us have begun to equate “user interface” with “graphical user interface.”"

    There are numerous examples of one's thinking of the future of UI.  Go watch an episode of Dennou Coil or similar and see that his letter ain't such new thinking.

  • Justinteractive

    Indeed too often single line statements intended to imply a proposition are taken as end to end statements of fact. Regardless of the medium, an interface must endeavour to reduce friction, perhaps to the point where there is no perceptible interface at all - but never at the expense of understanding or uncertainty.

    This isn't a profound message, rather a reminder to those who took the "best interface is no interface" a little too literally.

  • John Wayne Hill

    I think this is a great article, and I appreciate Fast Co's coverage of an important issue. In a response to Arnall's essay, I provide some clarity to terms and definitions, as well as counter examples in an effort to expand upon and clarify "interface" vs "graphical user interface".