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Just tried to explain what the floppy disk icon is for saving a doc to an 8 year old. Looked at me like I’m nuts. — Facebook friend

As I read over this post earlier this week, I started to think about how valuable Design really is. And not just good design, but great design. Design that enables you to solve problems. Design that helps you accomplish your goals. Design that feels intuitive, but in reality is just so dead simple that learning becomes transparent.

Design that you don’t realize has been intentionally designed.

I responded to the post, sharing my thoughts on affordances and the difficulty in creating semantic iconography for behavior that only exists in the virtual world, e.g. digital file versioning. The conversation then lead to the discussion of persisting state, i.e. performing actions like “saving” in the background auto-magically, helping you focus on creating rather than file management.

While traditional desktop software has been slow to adopt, web-based platforms have been pushing the boundaries in recent years using advanced, open-source technology like HTML5 and AJAX. Today, Google Docs and Medium are both great examples of how this type of idealistic workflow can change the landscape of creation and collaboration.


Google Docs saving automatically

As designers, this is the type of experience we should be aiming to create; interfaces that feel intuitive, natural, and transparent. But, all too often, we end up focusing on the details of the interface that we love to drool over at places like Dribbble and Behance. I can’t help but feel like this level of focus on transient design is more about personal pride than helping users solve problems.

Recently, the flat design era has brought us closer to this aim of transparency, removing the skeuomorphic cruft that has been built up over time originally to help us integrate technology into our lives more effectively. I’m not skeuomorph shaming; it’s a valid design technique that helps people adopt software by way of metaphor and affordances. But as we become more comfortable with technology, digital metaphors of the physical world should gracefully erode, allowing for new processes, behaviors, and meanings to be defined.

Design is all about communication. In terms of user-interface design, the goal is to facilitate problem solving through visual/digital cues. But if we take a step back and assess the true nature of the problems we are trying to help users solve, opportunities will present themselves to assist users with accomplishing their goals sans-interface.

“The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.” — Don Norman

I’m not calling for an end to interface design, but less of a focus on screen-based thinking. As designers, we should leverage technology, instead of catering to it in our screens and focus on developing systems that can adapt to user behavior, instead of adapting user behavior to the system.

As the interface takes a backseat and becomes more transparent, we can stop focusing on what icons should look like and their semantics, and instead help our users forget about the days when they needed to manually click an icon to do something as important as saving.

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Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 16, 2013 at 3:18pm

UI skins are fashion. Flat vs. 3D is like wide vs. thin ties. Its cyclic.

Comment by Brian on September 13, 2013 at 1:49pm
Great write up. It is remarkable how consistent interfaces have been over the years when you think in terms of how we interact with devices. We still talk about buttons and windows and "typing". I'm not really convinced that removing 3D shadows and not having cutesy binding on a "notebook" app makes it much less skeuomorphic or necessarily better though. A lot of what makes an interface great are these cues like shadows and so forth, so while its interesting to see it evolve - let's be honest - it's not quite so innovative as people would claim. I remember old pre-windows program managers and old MacOS - they were "flat" as well. Windows 8's interface remains a nightmare IMO - and I really tried to give it a chance. New is not better and not always new either.

When I jump on a PC the one thing I personally miss very quickly if lacking is a mousewheel. And it's funny because some interfaces almost don't work without one now, sure you can still click buttons up and down or in and out but it's really designed with the assumption that you have one. Likewise I remember even before mouses when keyboard shortcuts were hot stuff - KVM was acting up the other day and let me just say trying to do email in outlook without a mouse is near impossible. Cues like 3D shadows and so forth aren't this noticeable, but it doesn't mean some people won't miss them.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on September 1, 2013 at 9:22am

I chuckled when I read your friend's post about the floppy disk "Save" icon. Scott and I had a similar discussion years ago. We were trying to come up with a universally recognizable "Save" icon that didn't depict a 35+ year old storage medium. Its a very hard thing to do well. It would be fun to do a design contest around creating universally recognizable semantic iconography for common software tasks in our new cloud-based world (at least for the ones we will still need.)

I agree with your point on screen-based thinking. As local and cloud storage becomes cheaper and software UXD evolves, the concept of a "Save" button will disappear. Every state of a document will be automatically persisted and versioned. Google Apps has already brought this concept to the masses.


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