Digital interfaces have followed a downward slope towards removing all the friction between the user and the content they want, and each generation has been a stop-gap technology until we’re able to trump it with the next, simpler, more-intuitive interaction. Touch screens have trumped external inputs like keyboards and mice and are likely to be surpassed by the offspring of today’s Siri, letting us mumble instructions rather than inconveniently wiping bacon grease on our expensive gadgets. VR, actually being inside an experience, is (finally) an actual commercial product, and going by the reviews, is pretty amazing.
The point is that each step, each Google update, strips away a layer of interference between us and the information we want. Access to the combined knowledge of the entire planet (and gifs of their cats) has never been smoother or easier to navigate. It’s hard to remember how we ever got by without our apps and their instant fix of celebrity gossip, trending hashtags and on-demand video. But pretty soon the idea of having to actually open an app to get what you want is going to seem ridiculously long-winded.
Beyond the webpage
‘Interface layers’ are poised to be the brave new frontier for digital interactions between brands/services and their end-users. We’ve been building up to this for a while – the way people interact with a company on Twitter, through their mobile app, during digital checkout and soon over Google maps/Slack bots/Facebook messenger transactions IS the brand, as much as any physical product or tv advert. WeChat in China is often cited as the future-now of mobile apps, it’s rolled in many services I (a generation Y iPhone wielder) would expect to see as separate services. Things like ordering taxis, gaming, sending and receiving money, alongside the usual chat feeds, it’s a full service app that you never need to quit out of.
We’re going to see a lot of criss-crossing of services as you order you uber within your google maps as you book a restaurant in dojo – big data finally helping services offer the right thing crucially in the right context. And the next step logical step (it seems to me) is to reduce that friction even further and allow people to access services through the most human type of interaction they currently have on their digital devices: messaging. Chat, messenger, text, is a much more natural, human, way to access information than navigating the complex visual language of a website, and the big players like Facebook seem to be betting on it.
What’s left to design?
The role of the designer is central to this changing relationship between user and brand, since the perceived value of design within organisations has increased massively over the last decade. After all the whole philosophy of “design thinking” is basically put the user needs first.
A pessimistic outlook is that once WhatsApp etc. effectively become their own operating systems many of the roles of a visual designer will be taken away – there’s only so much UI imagining that can be done within the strict confines of someone else’s app. It could be that we all end up creating interfaces copied and pasted directly from these services’ pages – a full dictatorship version of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. All we’ll have to work with is text and branded emojis.
There’s a danger in this, for brands at least; separating people from the technology is a good and bad thing – good when it simplifies the experience, bad when it devalues the service that’s being provided. One side effect from how seamless services can feel these days is the sense of entitlement we all have, and the outrage when Twitter goes down.
However as the barriers between points of interaction fall away, things get very exciting. Designers can plot journeys from physical world to Instagram to chat to checkout to feedback and back again, in ways that are so effortless for users it’ll make Amazon one-click ordering feel like parking your car in central London, on a Saturday.
Design is much more than the screenshots on Dribble. While there will always be a place for beautiful graphical layout, the true value of design is far less tangible and doesn’t look so good in a cropped screenshot. It’s an approach and a way of thinking that constantly refocuses on the best solution regardless of all other constraints. There’s never been a more exciting time to work in the digital industry. Time to get started.
Some articles that inspired me / I stole the insights from