NoUI, informed consent and the internet of things

In more youthful days I spent a year studying HCI. I’m sure there was much more to it but unfortunately only three things have stuck in my mind:

  1. interactions should be consistent
  2. interactions should be predictable
  3. interactions should not come with unexpected side-effects

I half remember writing a dissertation which was mostly finding creative ways to keep rewriting the same three points until requisite word count was reached.

I was thinking about this today whilst reading an assortment of pro and anti NoUI blog posts. I half agree with some of the points the NoUI camp are making and if they save us from designers putting a screen on everything and the internet fridge with an iPad strapped to the front I’d be happy. But mostly I agree with Timo Arnall’s No to NoUI post and his point that “as both users and designers of interface technology, we are disenfranchised by the concepts of invisibility and disappearance.”

This doesn’t really add much to that but some thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Too often chrome is confused with interface. There’s too much chrome and not enough interface.
  2. Even when something has a screen it doesn’t have to be an input / output interface. The screen can be dumb, the smarts can be elsewhere, the interface can be distributed to where it’s useful. The network takes care of that.
  3. An interface should be exactly as complex as the system it describes. The system is the interface. The design happens inside. I’m reminded of a quote from the Domain Driven Design book that, “the bones of the model should show through in the view”. An interface should be honest. It should put bone-structure before make-up (or lack thereof).
  4. The simplify, simplify, simplify mantra is all very good but only if you’re simplifying the systems and not just the interface. And some systems are hard to simplify because some things are just hard.
  5. No matter how much you think some side-effect of an interaction will please and “delight” your users if the side-effect is unexpected it’s bad design. You might want to save on interface complexity by using one button to both bookmark a thing and subscribe to its grouping but things are not the same as groups and bookmarks are not the same as subscriptions and conflating the two is just confusing. Because too little interface can be more confusing than too much.
  6. There seems to be a general belief in UX circles that removing friction is a good thing. Friction is good. Friction is important. Friction helps us to understand the limits of the systems we work with. Removing friction removes honesty and a good interface should be honest.
  7. Invisible interfaces with friction stripped out are the fast path to vendor lock-in. If you can’t see the sides of the system you can’t understand it, control it or leave because you don’t even know where it ends.
  8. If your goal is something like simplifying the “onboarding process” removing friction might well please your paymasters but it doesn’t make for an honest interface. Too much UX serves corporate goals; not enough serves people.
  9. Decanting friction out of the interface and turning it into a checkbox on the terms and conditions page is not a good interface.
  10. In the media world in particular there’s a belief that if you could just strip out the navigation then by the intercession of magic and pink fluffy unicorns “content will come to you”. Which is usually accompanied by words like intuitive systems. Which seems to miss the point that the thing at the other end of the phone line is a machine in a data centre. It is not about to play the Jeeves to your Bertie Wooster. It does not have intuition. What it probably has is a shedload of your usage data matched to your payment data matched to some market demographic data matched to all the same for every other user in the system. For the majority of organisations the internet / web has always been more interesting as a backchannel than as a distribution platform. They’d happily forego the benefits of an open generative web if only they could get better data on what you like.
  11. If and when we move away from an internet of screens to an “internet of things” the opportunities for sensor network and corporate-state surveillance multiply. Everything becomes a back-channel, everything phones home. With interface and friction removed there’s not only no way to control this, there’s no way to see it. Think about the data that seeps out of your front room: the iPad, the Kindle, the Samsung telly, the Sky box, the Netflix app, YouView, iPlayer, XBox, Spotify. And god only knows where it goes past there.
  12. Informed consent is the only interesting design challenge. With no interface informed consent is just another tick box on the set-up screen. Or a signature on a sales contract.
  13. The fact that we’ve not only never solved but deliberately sidelined informed consent in a world with interfaces doesn’t bode well for a world without.