“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
– Alice, in Wonderland
There is more to design than what appears on a screen. People talk about no UI and artificial intelligence these days. They are the hot new thing. It is alluring to think of them as the ultimate manifestation of minimalism; self-driving cars and digital personal assistants that know where you want to go today. They make us dream of a better, more frictionless future. One without a UI.
I am not ready to jump on the no UI bandwagon just yet. Au contraire, I believe that people will always want an interface to a tool. No matter how complex that tool becomes in the future.
A good tool is irreplaceable.
I do agree that the definition of UI (design) is changing. Design is purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object. An interface is a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact. Until now, in practice, we have used a crippled definition of those words. In most designers’ heads, UI refers to a screen and design refers to what happens on said screen. As systems become more integrated, what a designer does will shift towards a more holistic approach.
That change will not be without friction. Many design theorists describe how flat design is harming usability. Some important design voices have criticized Apple1 for ‘giving design a bad name’. And you cannot blame them. When you look at design through the lens of usability on screen, things are a mess – on every platform.
A focus shift
However, I think we are experiencing a focus shift. We have created so many different tools that it has become time to take a step back and view the bigger picture.
Let us take Apple as an example. The company has always focused on integrating all of the different components. The difference is there are many more components now than ever. Apple plans for an optimal experience across devices and they seem to prioritize real world manifestations of design over the purely visual. That is a practice in finding the right balance. Focusing on usability alone is just as unbalanced as focusing on features is.
My phone lies somewhere in my living room and I receive all text messages and calls on my laptop. I can take a call on my laptop. Or call someone from my tablet. I can voice-command my phone to turn on my lights, or to set a certain mood. “Hey Siri, Relax”. I can stream any music I want from the internet to my living room speakers. Wireless backups run without noticing and there was never a need to configure much. I am less worried about downloading software from dubious sources because I have a pretty secure App Store. All those things are design as well. It takes some excellent designers and engineers to deliver that kind of tightly integrated, mostly worry free life / work environment.
And this shift is a bigger shift that other companies are making as well. Apple is only one example of a company doing it particularly well. Design is on top of its game. What changed, is the game.
It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
Welcome to the integration of everyday things.