How invisible interfaces are changing the future of customer experience

Technology has a weird pattern - In the beginning it solves a problem and later on itself becomes a problem. Why do we need to take out our mobile phones and press a button to switch ON the lights- smart lights? Why do we need to take out smart phone to switch ON the AC - smart AC? Why do we need to take out our mobile phone to check the weather to carry an umbrella - smart umbrella?

As technologists and end users, we all recognise that excessive screen dependence is detrimental in a lot of ways, yet for every problem we think of mobile “first”. A study conducted by Nelson showed that average number of apps owned by Americans is less than 30, where Android had 2.2 million apps and Apple around 2 million apps. Most of these apps in spite of all the good intentions and good investment are ignored and fail.

The reason for a screen

The first big assumption we make is that user has enough attention bandwidth and infinite memory to respond to all apps needed in the form of input and data. This has been shown to be far from the truth. Research has shown that our brain can keep track of a maximum of seven things at any given point in time.

The second erroneous assumption is that the user would already know how to work with and interact with a screen. However, only 40% people worldwide have internet connectivity today, and less than 10% of the population in developing countries is digitally literate.


The third assumption we go wrong with is that everyone knows how to negotiate with UI features and techniques on screens.

The time has arrived to question the presence of visible interfaces at every point. The role of a designer is not to create engaging UI but to solve the problem and get the user task done.

Invisible interface is a mindset, a way of thinking. It is a ‘screen-less’ mindset for a world filled with screens of various sizes. Also referred to as Zero UI, invisible interfaces is a shift in paradigm, where users’ movements, voice, thoughts, gestures, etc. trigger interactions between users and systems. It includes voice interaction (i.e. the ability to speak to your devices) and adoption of touch responsive wearables (including fitbit), sensors, distributed computers and connected everything devices (like Siri, Google Home).


Solving for the need itself

A screen-less mindset enables one to understand the real user need; ensuring problem solving for that need seamlessly and not by just sticking a screen to the problem. Invisible interfaces is the humanistic approach to computing which, by the way, is the core philosophy of design thinking. There are three important guiding principles suggested by golden Krishna (Designer at Google) and Andy Goodman (Design strategist at Fjord) to make interfaces invisible.

Embrace the process — Embracing the process reveals the underlying parameters required to serve the user needs. For instance, a smart light in your house works on the principle of figuring out the arrival time of the owner, the time of the day and natural light condition and with the help of mobile it decides on its own whether it should switch ON or be dim or switch OFF.

Make the technology invisible — When you make computers invisible you actually flip the HCI . It is no longer the human that is adjusting to the computer’s need, but the other way round. For example, a smart AC works on the principle of figuring out the daily usage pattern and learning the preferred comfortable temperature of the room. In order to remain invisible, the app is taking the decisions on behalf of users, making their experience seamless.

Make it personal and contextual — In order to make the screens invisible, the system must understand the context in which they are operating. Let us take the case of a smart umbrella. It connects to the weather service and evaluates the probability of rain. If there is a probability of rain, it gives a visual feedback. It doesn’t stop there. If used during sunshine, then it gives similar feedback during summer as well.

We see that all the three guidelines are interconnected with each other and one has to follow all to be able to design a seamless, immersive user interface. While some organisations have already started moving in that direction and are seeing results, many are yet to follow the suit.

The downside

On the flip side, it can be argued that invisible interfaces are expensive and time consuming. However, as the world is increasingly becoming more digital, we are expecting similar seamless experiences in all our interactions (across brands in each sector) that are more engaging, conversational and make our lives simpler. Making technology invisible requires un-learning the traditional forms of customer interactions. The time has come to change from mobile “first” to mobile “last” approach.

- By Alok Kumar,‎ Director, Technology, SapientRazorfish