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Apr 26, 2018 | 6 min read


An interface necessarily reflects the choices made by its designer

Mathilde Maitre

Head of Design

According to Mathilde, our Head of Design, an interface is “the tip of the iceberg” of an overall experience. It’s the embodiment of a series of choices that a designer must make when designing a service, object, or anything else. And these choices should not always be the same. Evidence for this hit the news at the start of this year, revealing the danger of standardizing purely “functional” designs. What if we were to invent more “sensitive” experiences?

A Saturday morning at the start of January. Still half-asleep, an operator arrives for duty at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Coffee in hand, he prepares to complete his first task of the day and selects one of the options in a drop-down menu, almost without thinking.

Suddenly, he’s gripped by a terrible panic. He’s made a mistake: instead of selecting “Test missile alert”, he’s clicked on “Missile alert”.

A text is sent automatically to all Hawaii residents, reading “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”, it takes 38 minutes for the State authorities to deny the information, sparking a wave of panic.

A wave of panic also felt by software designers everywhere. Or at least by me… That’s because, other than being a funny story worthy of an American comedy, this widely-publicized news story  highlighted a fundamental design problem. I wondered anxiously: did that interface’s design cause the mistake? Have we gone too far in our quest for simplicity? In our keenness to be helpful and make users’ lives easier, have we reduced reality to overly simple choices?

As a fan of Google Material Design from the off, and a vocal advocate of design systems – toolboxes for designers that guarantee coherence across interfaces and interactions, whatever the point of contact – I’ve come to reassess the pragmatic approach commonly taken by designers that insists on offering functional and/or utilitarian experiences at any cost, even if they’re not always entirely suitable.

Let’s go back to the Hawaiian disaster: who’s to blame? The operator? That’s too easy. No, you have to look harder to find the culprit. Let’s take a closer look at the notorious drop-down menu that the operator failed to use correctly: isn’t the use of a drop-down menu in a situation like this questionable to say the least? In these circumstances, when you have to choose between two options that aren’t used with the same frequency and that have vastly different consequences (and potentially major consequences in the case of a missile alert), users shouldn’t be presented with a drop-down menu.

When we treat these restricted choices in the same way, we considerably increase the chances of the wrong one being selected.

In this case the problem with the interface design is easy to spot, and the solution is relatively simple: we could, for example, use two buttons that function differently. But we’d be wrong to stop there; instead we should take a step back and look at the overall experience. Because there is no user interface (UI) without a user experience (UX).

After all, the interface is just the visible part of the design work (the tip of the iceberg visible above the surface, as the famous metaphor goes, implying that the user experience is below the surface).

The interface is what the user understands, takes charge of and uses.

The interface is the embodiment of its designer’s choices. It’s therefore the designer’s responsibility to design systems that satisfy user requirements while making sure that actions are only simple- or even intuitive- if no error is possible.

For several years now, or even 20 years if we include Amazon’s patented “one-click” function, designers have been waging war on pain points. They must be driven out and corrected. The result? A simpler, more fluid and effortless user experience.

User experiences have become black boxes: the designer’s complex calculations are hidden behind user-friendly buttons, conversational interfaces and increasingly natural principles of interaction. So it’s easier and easier for users to complete tasks. In exchange, they lose all control over how things work and all understanding of the consequences of their actions.

Today, design is judged on its efficiency and cohesion throughout the user experience, whatever the point of contact (office or shop, website or application, for example).

But I wonder: is that still enough? What about now?


A return to pain points? Too simple.

We’re living in a UX-obsessed era, where the biggest evil, it seems, is pain. After trying for years to eradicate it, some people are now suggesting that we rediscover it. As if bringing pain points back to user journeys is the only way to make them pay attention. I’m sceptical about this approach, to say the least. So should we be designing more complicated interfaces which require more clicking and reading? Should we set out to make our users desperate, confused and bored? They’d only give up before reaching the end of the process (there’s a reason we’ve spent so much effort trying to make the user experience more fluid).

We’re living in a UX-obsessed era, where the biggest evil, it seems, is pain

Like the series of deliberately uncomfortable everyday objects created by Katerina Kamprani – artworks that aim, in part, “to deconstruct the invisible design language of simple everyday objects and tweak their fundamental properties” to surprise and challenge the viewer – experiences, and therefore interfaces, must attract and arouse attention. At the wrong moment.

We’d never want to exchange our glasses for the ones designed by Kamprani. But we look at them, wonder about them, maybe even laugh. That’s the obvious aim of these objects: to stop and question things that we take for granted. The same goes for interfaces: I don’t want to be inundated by pop-ups asking me to confirm each action, an idea which annoys me just writing it.

The Uncomfortable Design, Katerina Kamprani


Less but better” was the mantra of Dieter Rams, repeated later by Jonathan Ive, who said “If something doesn’t need to be there, it’s not there”. And it’s the same today: there’s no need to go backwards; what we need to do is get into the habit of asking ourselves the right questions, again. We need to put users’ choices into context. We need to ask what’s necessary and what’s not. And we need to systematically ask ourselves when to limit a choice, and when to open it up.


What if we invented more “sensitive” experiences (and interfaces)?

The success of voice interfaces, which are gaining more and more ground among the general public, and the many research projects currently focusing on other inputs like movement, expressions and even thought, together with the emergence of increasingly mature technologies, have me convinced that these “new interfaces” – which some call “natural” and which will only become more “natural” in the future (if we understand that term to mean “intuitive”) – represent an unmissable opportunity for us as designers. It’s an opportunity to design and offer new experiences that are more attention-grabbing, and to create a more intimate and personal relationship with our users and clients.

That could mean an invisible, screen-free user interface where natural gestures trigger interactions, as if users were communicating with another person. This is now possible thanks to the advent and widespread adoption of sensors, data analysis, total connectivity, and systems allowing for anticipation, adaptation and contextual knowledge.

These interfaces allow us to forget (as users) and side-step (as designers) the screens glowing on the table, next to our beds and in our pockets. Or, to keep them for more functional activities.
And we’re nearly there. Of the many new voice assistants that have invaded our stores (and our homes) in just the last few months, it’s already clear that the most effective are the ones that “reach out” to us. A good voice-user interface demonstrates snippets of personality that create a stronger feeling of intimacy between the object/machine and the user. The phrases and words selected reflect the decision-making process, neither neutral nor mechanical, which went into the construction of the system’s reasoning and dialogue capacities.

Alexa becomes even more endearing (and more human) when you hear her laugh, even when it’s an error.


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