Why user interfaces should be visible, seamful, and explicit

Timo Arnall from the design studio BERG has makes several great and provocative points in his essay "No to NoUI" -- a well-argued piece that opposes the idea of "interfaces that disappear" and "seamless computer interfaces," arguing that by hiding the working of computers from their users, designers make it harder for those users to figure out what the computers are really doing and to solve the problems that inevitably arise.

Interfaces are the dominant cultural form of our time. So much of contemporary culture takes place through interfaces and inside UI. Interfaces are part of cultural expression and participation, skeuomorphism is evidence that interfaces are more than chrome around content, and more than tools to solve problems. To declare interfaces ‘invisible’ is to deny them a cultural form or medium. Could we say ‘the best TV is no TV’, the ‘best typography is no typography’ or ‘the best buildings are no architecture’?

...We might be better off instead taking our language from typography, and for instance talk about legibility and readability without denying that typography can call attention to itself in beautiful and spectacular ways. Our goal should be to ‘place as much control as possible in the hands of the end-user by making interfaces evident’.

Of course the interfaces we design may become normalised in use, effectively invisible over time, but that will only happen if we design them to be legible, readable, understandable and to foreground culture over technology. To build trust and confidence in an interface in the first place, enough that it can comfortably recede into the background.

No to NoUI (via Dan Hon)


      1. To quote a former Australian Prime Minister, “After art deco there’s only fag packets and bottle tops”. 

  1. I like big buttons. And knobs. Twisty mechanical ones. Ideally a bit gritty.
    I was sold on Edius NLE when I saw a big fat blue 0,0,255 border around preview screen – so I know where all my pixels begin and end. Invisible borders, low contrast selections and ID’s general “we pretend we’re not here but actually…” slyness bordering with hypocrisy has become odious to me. I yearn for the return to the good old Amiga Noisetracker UI design days… The times when you felt like a Creator when you sat down in front of your monitor.

      1. Depends on how many. 

        Although carbon and conductive plastic potentiometers wear and get noisy fast, they have one advantage over the ladder pots formerly used in good audio consoles – they’re almost stepless.

        However, entirely too many 1970s audio gear manufacturers added detents to their cheap carbon pots to imitate the feel of a ladder pot.  (Ironically, good ladder pots were so fine-grained that they almost acted like carbon pots.)  Thus they layered the downside of a ladder pot onto the negatives of a cheap carbon pot. 

        To put it another way, they made an analog control work like a digital one, by enforcing fixed steps.  (Today almost everything has fixed steps, since it’s done digitally.)

        So, no thanks on the detents-every-x-degrees knob.  I wouldn’t mind one detent at the “this knob does nothing here” neutral position, though.

        1.  That’s what I like about Boingboing.  No matter how arcane the topic, mention it and you’ll find an expert on it. 

  2. loitered in here hoping for a definition of “seamful”.  y’know, “my god, it’s full of seams!”, said my uncle Tony the Tailor

      1. ok… i’m learning [chin in hand] so among interfaces one dislikes seamlessness and instead one’s seams ought to seemingly be highly protuberant (if not tumescent) -check-

        1. Exactly, I find protuberanceness a highly attractive feature of knobs. If you find yourself turning them frequently and depending on them for a living (or just living as such), the protuberancier and contrastier they are, the better.

  3. It occurs to me that there might be an audience for both kinds of interface, just as some people prefer stick over automatic trans.

  4. How on earth does “no interface” work? It just reads your mind and does what you want without you doing anything? You can’t get rid of a UI without making a device that isn’t actually controlled by the user…

    1. … run from terminal. no window opens, nothing specifies how well or badly it is running. any parameters needed must be specified in terminal. readme is nonexistent.

      at the other extreme. one window opens. flashing gifs blind user, and loud squeel induces headache. part of the window has buttons, but it’s hard to tell which parts correspond to which buttons. a few menus are incompatible with certain hardware and impossible for users with certain disabilities. an extra three clicks to get from a useless default setting to a usable setting any time you need to do anything.

  5. Some days I long for the simple predictability of Apple System 7’s UI and the religious adherence developers had for their Human Interface Guidelines.  I wasn’t perfect, but it got so much right.  Then again, that’s when they had actual engineers study what worked for users with science and data and interfaces weren’t designed by college kids, magazine layout people, and CEO’s who want things to look like their toaster.

  6. I think Mr. Arnall misunderstands the meaning of “invisible”, as shown by his comments about typography and TV.   Invisible typography isn’t the absence of typography  – which is not possible  anyway – but such well-constructed typography that it enhances the content of the text, directs the user, invokes certain emotions without drawing attention to itself.

    Invisible design – and this applies to UI, too – isn’t about hiding stuff, but exposing stuff.

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