The best interface is no interface: why we don't always need An App for That

Some of the best designs never hit our screens

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Author and designer Golden Krishna believes that we’re quickly becoming a society that’s obsessed with our screens, and that the companies making and marketing apps aren’t doing us any favors. “Our love for the digital interface is out of control,” he said at SXSW two years ago; it’s a notion that he’s been digging into and developing in the months since. “Many people don’t want more time with screens, they want less,” Krishna told The Verge over email. “So why did technology celebrate screen-based solutions?”

Krishna’s new book, The Best Interface is No Interface, lays out how we got to this app-obsessed point and how we can turn things around and ensure that we’re using the best tool for the job. That may or may not be an app on your smartphone — Krishna doesn’t want to go back to the flip-phone age, he just thinks lots of companies and designers are defaulting to using screens and apps when that actually makes the task you’re trying to accomplish more difficult.

The thoughts Krishna lays out in the chapter we’ve excerpted from his book below are particularly relevant right now, given the attention being lavished on Apple and its UI-heavy smartwatch. “A fair amount of the articles about actual use cases [for the Apple Watch] show off standard, screen-intensive interactions,” Krishna said over email. “Here are all the screens you have to use to hail a cab on Uber. Here's how Facebook notifications look. Your Instagram feed. They’re boring — and repetitive to what a smartphone already offers.”

Regardless of the feeling that we’re at “peak screen” so to speak, Krishna’s hopeful that things will begin to even out — and he sees that a younger generation might be the catalysts behind it. “The young don't admire swiping and tapping like their parents,” he says. “There's nothing novel about another screen to either.” It’s similar to how teenagers are slowly abandoning Facebook. It’s more and more taken over by their parents, and other services and apps are leaner and better-designed for the things they care about: messaging and images.

The following chapter from The Best Interface is No Interface is called “Screen-based thinking: Let’s make an app!” In it, Krishna lays out probably his worst-case scenario for app- and screen-based thinking, showing exactly how some companies are getting it wrong. It’s a scenario Krishna has been sharing for years, but it’s no less effective and illuminating today. He also offers a bit of hope, showing how interface designers can actually build things that make our lives easier — without needing an app to do it.

Screen-based thinking: Let's make an app!

Somewhere, at some point in time, we fell in love.

I really don’t know when. Like all relationships, it seemed to happen in the blink of an eye — from the blur of whatever we were doing before, to a passionate, unquestioning love for the modern, handsome, beautiful interface of the moment: apps.

Maybe it was these gently whispered sweet nothings from all the way back in 2009:

"What’s great about the iPhone is that if you want to check snow conditions on the mountain, there’s an app for that."

Forget that the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association reported that only 2.6 percent of Americans actually downhill ski — or that they did so only about eight days a year when these nothings were first whispered. When we heard that siren song, nothing else mattered. Love and reason? Well, they’re like oil and vinegar.

The commercial continued. Our pulses quickened. "And if you want to check where exactly you parked the car..."

Don’t tease me. We all know how to end that phrase. Six beautiful trademarked words that may have unintentionally fenced in this generation’s limitations on technological creativity.

There's an app for that.TM

Shallow, skin-deep apps

Forget that 780 million people in the world, give or take, don't have access to clean drinking water, or that more than half a million people are homeless in the wealthy United States. We moved way past "mundane" social issues and collectively propelled the technology field — where disruption and innovation have a proven track record of changing everyday lives — to giving the world what it really needs: more mobile apps.

But not ideal, meaningful, invisible apps running quietly and efficiently on your smartphone, smartwatch, or tablet. Instead, shallow, skin-deep apps that seductively offer the life-affirming, itch-scratching swipes and two-finger pinches that the world needs, wants, and craves.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is 99 cents to download.

Name a news source. Odds are they have a recent article, column, or perhaps an entire section devoted to swooning over the latest apps. It may be because reporters want to showcase that they’re hip — yeah, we know apps — but it’s probably because they’re also love drunk with touchscreen oxytocin.

An app, just by being an app, doesn’t guarantee that it produces anything of merit to anyone anywhere, but please — shh! — we must defend our loved one’s honor. An app’s creation is told as a gospel of wonder and miracle: we’re blessed that someone wrote working code that somehow illuminated the dark, mythical path to Apple or Google’s app catalog.

Love Drunk with Touchscreen oxytocin

The New York Times featured an "App of the Week," and had a recurring "App Smart Extra" column with heart-throbbing titles like "A Weather App That Works." It works!? What glorious times with our love.

And during the financial crisis, The New York Times featured a Bloomberg app as "App of the Week" because it revealed "basic stock market data." What? Extraordinary!

Perhaps you, too, poured a glass of Chablis and cued up Norah Jones to set the mood as you reread the touching USA Today piece, "5 New Apps That Will Change Your Life." My heart melts at that opening line: "Apps, apps, and more apps . . . truly life changing."

Or maybe you’re thinking, "Oh, I’ll just turn on talking head CNN and forget about my app muse." Think again, my friend. Here are real CNN headlines.

  • Stuck in snow? There's an app for that.
  • Moody? There's an app for that.
  • Staying safe in danger zones? There's an app for that.
  • Remote sex? There's an app for that.
  • No TP? There's an app for that.
  • Need to pray? There's an app for that.

Whether you’re out of toilet paper, trying to stalk someone, or are actually dead, well, "There’s an app for that."™ Justin Bieber. One Direction. God. According to Google Trends, none has been as popular a search term as "app."

No Interface Google Trends

Not surprisingly, almost every major automotive company has been working on apps for smartphones. Who wouldn’t want in on the love affair? And an industry that has been working on the same four-wheeled concept for over 120 years could always use some refreshing. Some of the apps touted in press releases and blogs have the ability to unlock your car doors.

"My BMW remote app unlocks car doors, starts the AC, and more!"

This begs the question: How do you make a better car key? Most of these automotive door-opening apps work similarly, so for the sake of demonstration, let’s see how amazing it was to actually use the BMW app on an iPhone when a recent version of Apple’s mobile operating system was launched. In Apple’s words, this is "the world’s most advanced mobile OS. In its most advanced form."

1. Walk up to my car.

I walk toward my car and want to open my car door.

2. Pull out my smartphone.

I want to open my car door. So, I reach into my pocket and carefully pull out my smartphone because I definitely don’t want to drop something made of glass and thin metal onto a cement parking lot.

3. Wake up my phone.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and, almost unconsciously, I regrip my smartphone to "wake up" my phone by pressing and clicking in the main button.

4. Unlock my phone.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and hit the circular Home button at the bottom of my phone for the fingerprint reader to unlock my phone.

5. Exit my last opened app.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, I see my last opened application, and I hit the Home button to exit the application. (Hopefully I don’t get distracted by my Twitter stream. Speaking of, did you see the new pictures of the royal baby? He’s growing up so fast! I’m sorry, what are we doing here?)

6. Exit my last opened group.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, I see the group of applications that my last opened application was categorized under, and I press the Home button to exit the group view.

7. Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and see the Home screen. I swipe right-to-left across the screen through a sea of icons, scanning their logos and the tiny type underneath, trying to find the app.

8. Tap the app icon.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and tap the app icon to open the car app.

8a. ...

...

9. Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone and see a beautiful map of North America.

10. Make a guess with the menu and tap Control.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone. I’ve got a lot of choices. I cross my fingers and tap the Control tab option at the bottom.

11. Tap the Unlock button.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and I see more choices. A button right at the top of the list says Locking/Unlocking. I tap that.

12. Slide the slider to unlock.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and a two-way slider pops up with a lock icon to the left and an unlock icon to the right. I slide the slider to the right because (for those not paying attention) I want to open my car door.

13. Physically open the car door.

I want to open my car door. So, I look down at my phone, and it says, "Data transfer successful." Not totally sure what that means, but I think that did it . . . Heaven, I’m in heaven! My heart beats so that I can hardly speak. . . Yes, my doors are now unlocked, and I can open my car doors!

Wait, 13 steps?

What happened here?

There was me, walking up to my car. And there was my goal: to open my car door.

(This isn’t complicated.)

  1. Walk up to my car
  2. Pull out my smartphone
  3. Wake up my phone
  4. Unlock my phone
  5. Exit my last opened app
  6. Exit my last opened group
  7. Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app
  8. Tap the app icon
  9. Wait for the app to load and try to find the unlock action
  10. Make a guess with the menu and tap "Control"
  11. Tap the Unlock button
  12. Slide the slider to unlock
  13. Physically open the car door (my goal)
All but two of the steps had to do with the app's digital interface.

I had a goal, and to accomplish it, I had to use a screen. And thanks to the app, it only took me over a dozen steps to unlock my car doors.

Has our love deceived us? Is this app an improvement on the car key? Sit down and steel yourself. The answer, my friend, is no.

I know. It ain’t easy, giving up your heart.

Say, instead, we applied the first principle of the best interface is no interface, entirely avoided using a screen, and embraced our typical processes. After all, as Edward Tufte once said, "Overload, clutter, and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design."

If we eliminate the graphical user interface, we're left with only two steps:

  1. A driver approaches her car
  2. She opens her car door
Anything beyond these two steps should be frowned upon.

Seem crazy? Well, more than a decade before that 13-step app was released, and before we were seduced by screen-based infatuation, the situation was solved by Siemens and first used by Mercedes-Benz. Here’s how their solution works: When you grab the car door handle (a logical part of opening a car door), the car sends out a low-frequency radio signal to see if your keys are in close proximity — say, in your pocket or in your purse — and if they are, the doors unlock instantaneously, without any additional work.

An improvement on the car key? Yes.

Some people have said to me, "Come on man, this is our love. What about when we’ve locked our keys in the car? That’s when we need the app."

Don’t let your emotions blind you: the car can sense where the keys are, so the doors won’t lock if your keys are inside. And the trunk? It won’t even close if the keys are in the trunk. In other words, you could never lock your keys in the car.

By reframing the design context from a digital screen to our natural course of actions, Siemens created an incredibly intuitive and wonderfully elegant car entry solution for Mercedes. (If this sounds familiar and you don’t own a Mercedes, that’s because their solution was adopted by other automotive companies.)

Is the Siemens system an improvement on the key?

Duh. Embracing a typical process means you can do what you normally do. Avoiding a digital interface means you don’t waste time learning, troubleshooting, and using a screen you don’t need to be using anyway. That’s good design thinking, especially when designing around common tasks.

Avoiding a digital interface means you don't waste time using a screen you don't need to be using anyway

And that's what this book is about:

The best interface is no interface.

This book is about taking a second look at today’s screen-obsessed world — how we got here, why we’re still here, why this awful trend is so awful, and how people are moving beyond screens and breaking off their love affair with mundane apps.

This book isn’t a rant. It’s filled with ideas for entrepreneurs, startups, designers, engineers, gadget-lovers, and people who are just interested in technology. It shows a new way to think about the future of tech and how to fall in love with something more alluring than a weather app.

The topics covered here are relevant to you and society. Yes, my message may turn heady, but this isn’t a textbook. It’s like a bar conversation between friends about a simple path to brilliant technology.

Bottoms up.

Excerpted from The Best Interface Is No Interface: The simple path to brilliant technology by Golden Krishna. Copyright © 2015. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.