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

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