Make the Seen Unseen, and By Doing So, Beautiful

“Do not think of it as a weapon. Make it part of your hand – part of your arm. Make it part of you.”
— Lieutenant Warf, Star Trek, The Next Generation

In the hit TV series Star Trek, Lieutenant Warf instructs his son not to think of the Bat’leth, the ancient Klingon sword, as a weapon. He tells him to think of it as an extension of his own body, even an extension of himself. The concept is so common in the lore of the sword that it has become a cliché. It has made its way into popular culture from the Klingon Bat’leth to the Jedi light saber to Harry Potter’s wand. Nonetheless, there is an essential element of truth to the old adage that underlies the cliché. To most effectively use a tool or instrument, one ceases to perceive the object itself and focuses entirely on the goal or task at hand.

Photo of a Stainer violin

The violin is often considered one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. But, does the violinist see the violin while playing it?

I intentionally invoked the example of a weapon because I believe that a great way to test the validity of a concept is to look at it in a real life or death context. When wielding a sword, you cannot afford to focus on anything except defense and offense. The sword becomes your linked partner in the fight and both you and it must act as one or perish. Is it any wonder that Japanese tradition dictates that a katana should be named? The concept is not limited to weapons. The same can be said of musical instruments. Accomplished musicians don’t think about their instruments during a performance. They think, or more accurately, feel the music and the instrument becomes their partner in bringing forth the performance.

The minute the object insinuates its presence as a distraction, as an unbalanced sword would be to a warrior or a mistuned violin would be to a violinist, the user’s goal is compromised because “flow” is broken. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the concept of “flow” as the state a person is in when he or she is single-mindedly focused on a goal or task. Emotions are positive, channeled, energized and aligned with achieving the goal. We have all experienced this, at some point. Whether it is playing a sport or musical instrument, creating a work of art, writing, singing, or any other activity, our experience of flow is one in which time seems to fly and we feel an almost euphoric sense of accomplishment. It is a state of mind to be valued and respected.

The tasks and goals that users have when using an interface should be accorded this same level of respect. As User Experience professionals, we should make it our primary directive to research and reveal the interface, interactions, and information architecture that allow people to achieve a state of flow while accomplishing their tasks and goals. Not once should people have to actually think about the interface itself. It should be there as their silent partner, acting as the powerful extension their efforts. It should be there, but in the users’ minds, invisible.

So, if a great interface is invisible, how can it be considered beautiful? Well, if you notice when people appreciate the beauty of a treasured object that they use, they do it when they are not using it. The swordsman can see the simple elegance of the katana. The violinist can appreciate the craftsmanship and beautiful form of the violin. These objects have an outward visual beauty that is tremendously enhanced by the experience of the flow that comes with using them. The “unseen” experience becomes the foundation of the visual experience of the object. It is the marriage of both that is at the core of what delights and engages us with any object that is well designed. Without that foundation, the object becomes “just another pretty thing.”

There are no shortages of cool and contemporary interfaces and devices today. Visual designers are very effective at eliciting emotional responses and creating a brand. However, the mere appearance of beautiful visual designs will remain only “skin deep” unless the user has had a positive experience of staying in the flow. Worse, if the visual design aggressively interrupts the users’ flow, the bravado of the visual design will fail to deliver its promise. It may “look cool,” but underneath, really isn’t.

Photo of a criss-crossing sidewalk the interrupts people's conversations.

What purpose does this sidewalk design serve?

Consider the design of the sidewalk displayed in this photo. It is placed in a location that serves as an easement from a collection of office building entrances to the street. In this location, people commonly use the easement when going to and from the office. In many instances, I observed conversations among people interrupted by the configuration of the paths that forced groups to split into divergent paths and return together, only to be forced apart again. I also observed people incurring momentary indecision on which divergent path to take, as if a sidewalk should present this choice when it is entirely unnecessary. What is the purpose of this design? It can’t be to help people proceed efficiently. The only answer I can see is that the designer intended to have the sidewalk “make its presence known,” whether the pedestrians want it or not. It’s examples like this one that I’ve seen play out many times in design. Whether it’s forcing users to see “how cool the UI is” or presenting them with another unnecessary “cool thing they can do,” it amounts to an interruption of the users’ flow.

Interruptions cost people valuable time. Research done by Nielsen Norman Group revealed that even a one minute interruption can cost a knowledge worker 10 to 15 minutes of lost productivity due to the time needed to reestablish mental context and the flow state.* Users already have to contend with enough daily interruptions from phone calls, instant messages, and “drop by” coworkers. When they are doing their work, they expect to have control of their workflow. An interface that interrupts them can easily “push them over the edge”.

As professionals in User Experience, we must apply the same principle of internal beauty inherent to the most beautiful of objects to every piece of hardware and software that we design and develop. This is why we do what we do: To create solutions that partner with people to help them achieve their goals; to present designs that energize and inspire people; to make the seen unseen, and by doing so, create beautiful invisibility.


*Nielsen J (2003) IM, Not IP (Information Pollution). Queue, 76-75

Posted in Delight, User Workflow | Leave a comment

User Experience’s Dark Side Raises Ethical Stakes

“If you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.” — Master Yoda

Darth Vader's Mask

Darth Vader’s Mask from the inside. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

In George Lucas’ epic screen saga, Star Wars, those with special talent and discipline can leverage The Force, the metaphysical power that binds the universe together – for good or for evil. The Force did not choose sides. It simply existed.

During the heady early days of user experience, many of us who leapt into the field felt much like the Jedi, the famed knights of Star Wars who used the Force to protect peace and justice. We were committed to bringing forth the principles and best practices of user experience that created intuitive interfaces. We strove to make the users’ experiences better, clearer, even to the point of being ‘seamless’ – the ultimate expression of an interface that not only gives the users what they want, but gives them what they need without them ever seeing how it happens.

It was only a question of time before the dark side of user experience would emerge. Now it has, as evidenced by the website called Dark Patterns. Curated by Harry Brignull, a user experience designer & consultant in Brighton and London, UK, Dark Patterns ( constitutes a library of interface design patterns used in websites and web-based applications to deceive users into actions that are generally not in their interest but are in the interest of the company. They are, in essence, examples of the dark side of user experience.

Yoda’s warning alerts us to the ubiquitous danger we face when we draw on the power of cognitive science that underlies our discipline. As interaction designers, we use that power with the best of intentions. In the Star Wars saga, Yoda warns Luke, an apprentice Jedi, as he heads into the most dangerous passage of his training, when the dark side of the Force will tempt him. Yoda cautions him that despite his best intentions to save his friends, he can still succumb to the road to Hell.

In the world of design, the temptations of the dark side are nothing new. In 1964, Ken Garland, a British designer, published the First Things First Manifesto, a clarion call for designers to resist the use of their talents to promote products of little social value. Four hundred graphic designers and artists endorsed his manifesto. When an updated version of the manifesto was published as First Things First 2000 in Adbusters, 33 internationally recognized graphic design professionals endorsed it, including Milton Glaser, the famous creator of the “I Love New York” logo. Glaser went on to publish The Road to Hell in a special edition of AIGA’s membership publication dedicated to “truth.” In this seminal piece, Glaser presented 12 scenarios that challenged designers to confront how far they would go with whether or not they would use their talents to help companies design deceptive advertising. Each scenario represented a progressively more challenging compromise to personal ethics, from the most innocuous implied meaning to out-and-out deception to sell a product known to cause death. Framed in this manner, Glaser forced the graphic design community to think about when ethics demanded turning down work. But in this context, he raised awareness of how ethics was a question of “where you draw the line,” a far cry from the common perception of telling the truth as being absolute.

UX designers today face the same challenge, only now the ethical stakes are higher. The forces that UX leverages are grounded in cognitive science that has advanced rapidly in recent decades. How humans interact with an application interface is a subtle psychological dance from system display to human perception to human action to system feedback and back again. Affordances in the interface, that ever-present subconscious communicator, drive people to think and then act without realizing it. The “force” of interaction design is powerful indeed, on an order of magnitude beyond the power of print creations that raised the clarion call from graphic designers of the last century.

Perhaps the time has come for a user experience ‘First Things First Manifesto’ to challenge the ethics of dark patterns.  Such a manifesto would need thought leaders in the UX community to step up to the plate to endorse it. Until that happens, it is up to every interaction designer in user experience to be aware of the signposts along the road to Hell.

Look at and learn how to recognize deception when it shows up in business requirements. Call it out and push back when you can. Learn how to communicate with product managers and business stakeholders about the larger issues to consider. Any business model that requires the use of deception to perpetuate its existence is not a sound business model. Reliance on dark patterns leads the business into escalating cycles of deceptive interaction design practices that, over time, can destroy the users’ trust in the application, and ultimately, the company.

This article was originally published in Interactive Media at and is republished here with their permission.
Posted in Deception by Design, Deceptive Practices, Leveraging Cognitive Psychology | Leave a comment