Why I wish UI would just disappear

Tim Rodgers

Okay, so I don’t mean that I’d like UI to stop being a thing. As the creative partner in a digital creative agency I’d be out of a job pretty quickly. I’ve got rent to pay, whiskey to buy. It wouldn’t be much fun.

When I write that I wish UI would disappear I mean it in the most literal sense, as in: I hope we’ll get to a point where UI is so sophisticated and so natural, users won’t know it even exists.

So what is UI?

At its most simple, user interface (or UI) is the space where a human interacts with a computer. As a user, UI is our perceived functionality of a website, application or physical product. It requires an input – this could be hardware like a mouse and keyboard, your voice, or motion detection like the Microsoft Kinect – and an output – like a screen.

Why is UI important?

“As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product.” So said Jef Raskin, Apple’s legendary interface expert, in 1978. Today, 37 years later, this still holds true.

With this in mind, UI developers strive to create systems that are intuitive, informative and attractive. And until now, the received wisdom has been that UI is at it’s best when it’s hardly noticeable.

Here’s where I have a problem. What if we could go one better than ‘hardly noticeable’? What if we could achieve invisibility? It’s my belief not only that we can, but that it’s not so far from reach. Three reasons for this:

1) Consumers demand it

As technology has improved so too has our demand for more seamless modes of communication. We expect responses from machines, websites or apps to be instant. Take credit cards. Today in the UK we take contactless payments as a given, even though chip-and-pin is a relatively new technology. In turn, it won’t be long before phone payments will make contactless seem clunky too.

2) Tech is driving it

This trend towards lower cognitive load is also being pushed along by the industry. Notable examples include Android Wear and Apple Watch, which aim to keep your phone in your pocket by giving you relevant, just-in-time information like workout data when you’re exercising. Digital assistants like Google Now, Siri, and Cortana all want to help you get similarly relevant information at, or before, the moment you need it through natural language interfaces.

The continuing improvement and availability of so-called deep learning systems, which we can thank for the recent rapid development of UI, has seen speech recognition error rates drop hugely – in Google’s case, from 23 per cent to 8 per cent over the last three years. That’s the difference between one incorrectly understood word in four, and one in twelve – or the difference between unusable and occasionally annoying.

This is important because natural language can remove the need for complex graphical interfaces. For example in the future, booking a train ticket could be reduced from a multi-step process with complex option screens, to a single sentence in plain language.

3) The experts anticipate it

In their book 'The Age of Context', Robert Scoble and Shel Israel discuss technologies that understand you and your environment. They predict that this age of context, built on contextual technology like mobile, social, data, sensors and location-based services, will allow seamless interaction with devices and services that are orientated to your needs. It will build a 'highly anticipatory world' where knowledge of past behaviour, gleaned from personal data, predicts services and information you might need before you even you know you need them yourself.

Great interface has one job above all others, and that’s to get out of the user’s way. The examples, the trends and developments I’ve cited above – to my mind – show that UI is disappearing at pace. And I couldn’t be more excited about it.

Tim Rodgers is creative partner at rehabstudio. Read more of the agency's thoughts on UI here.

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