When Content Becomes The Interface
Jul 8, 2014
The interface is disappearing. With advancements in hardware, software, and interaction design, content is rising to the top and replacing the interface. This offers designers greater opportunities to design experiences that are more enriching, educational, and self-empowering. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, designers need to understand the content that their sites or apps are trying to communicate: we need to know the content so that we can enable the user to concentrate on that content.
To understand more fully what’s involved in this design process, we need to take a look at the research reported by Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes the brain as having two different ways of arriving at decisions or conclusions:
System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious
System 1 is the mechanism that leads people to decisions or conclusions without conscious thinking. System 1 thinking is done subconsciously and effortlessly. For example, when we see a bright yellow car in a crowded city what is the first thing that comes to mind? Those of us who’ve grown up in New York immediately think of it as a taxicab. We are not reasoning from the evidence that it is yellow to the hypothesis that it is a taxicab: we just immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s a taxicab, without any conscious thought.
Most of the time, such conclusions turn out to be right, at least when we’re operating in familiar environments. In other words, System 1 works to help people navigate quickly, and without too much mental effort, through their day-to-day lives. They don’t have to think about how to get to work, they don’t need to read street signs or rely on directions once they know the routine: they can go on automatic pilot. Once something has become routine, people can then shift their attention to new material that will require them to tap into System 2.
System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious
System 2 is the mechanism that enables people to reach decisions or conclusions by means of conscious, careful thinking. Since system 2 does not work as quickly as system 1, the use of system 2 is usually reserved only for encounters with unfamiliar information or circumstances. Since system 2 involves more effort than system 1, the use of system 2 typically requires concentration and freedom from distraction. For example, when you travel to an unfamiliar place, you need to concentrate on where you are going. And when you travel to a foreign country, you may feel like you need to concentrate on where you are going, what you are doing, and what others are doing, all at the same time. By the end of your first day abroad you may be exhausted. Once you are comfortable with the neighborhood in which you’re staying, you can then start to explore places outside that neighborhood more fully, and gain a gradually deeper and broader grasp of the city that you’re visiting. The exploration demands concentration, but what makes that concentration possible is that you don’t also have to think about where you’re going to stay and how you’re going to get there.
Designers need to design for both System 1 and System 2. They need to understand how to make interfaces transparent, so that their audience can concentrate on the content that demands their attention. In other words designers have two jobs:
Designing for system 1: Don’t make me think.
Designing for system 2: Do make me think.
Designing for System 1: Don’t Make Me Think
Interfaces need, on the one hand, to be “invisible,” to place no demands on their audience. As Steve Krug writes in his book Don’t Make Me Think:
“As a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. If people who build a site don’t care enough to make things obvious it can erode confidence in the site and its publishers.”
He’s right: If people puzzle over the interface they can’t concentrate on the real content that needs to be understood, diminishing the overall user experience.
In the early stages of web design, designing effective interfaces was challenging because of the restrictions of hardware and programming languages that required the audience to interact with an interface to get to the content.
Here is an early example of a webpage where the interface takes over the page. The user needs to figure out the interface first, requiring them to use System 2 exhausting their concentration before they can even get to the content.
— Yearbook page from Silver to Silica, Interactive Media Group, The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, 1991
We have made incredible advances since these early years. And the more we advance the more the interface starts to disappear. So, what will happen when we can effectively design interfaces that completely disappear?
Designing for System 2: Do Make Me Think
When designers can go beyond guiding audiences to information they think their audience wants, they can focus their attention on designing experiences that are intended to challenge their audiences to think, learn, reason, and become smarter: In short, to engage System 2.
Maps are a good example for this kind of exploration. Offering the user all the information up front, the user can scan all the content and focus on what they want. There is no critical starting point besides the one chosen by the user. The user is in control; once they are familiar with some of the content, they can start to dive deeper to find new information.
The success of this concept is emerging in several important examples.
Let’s take a look at Google Maps for instance:
1. When you first arrive at Google maps, the majority of the screen is reserved for the map of your current location. The interface supports the content by being visible and clear but non-invasive to the real content.
2. When you place an address in the search field, more of the interface starts to appear, to offer you choices of next steps.
3. When you click on an end destination, Google maps provides the route and further details of how to get there through the interface, but via the format of your choice. The map does not disappear and the user can see all the information in multiple formats on one screen (written directions, visible route, and background map).
The NY Times is another site that puts lots of content on one page for their user to explore, even if that means scrolling. They start their audience with a full overview of their content of the day on a single homepage. The user can scroll down and scan the full page. They can focus on the content and can click on what they are most interested in. As with Google maps, the user is in control of where they go and the interface is minimized. The user can always click on the back button or homepage button at the top to bring them to the main menu.
As technology improves, along with the rate at which we receive content, it will be more important than ever to concentrate on quality content experiences. These experiences will distinguish themselves to your audience from other experiences in the following inter-related ways:
1. They will never be bored when viewing the content.
2. They will have availability of all content up front.
3. They can go back over and over again and learn something new each time.
4. They control their own experience.
5. There is no right or wrong way to engage with the content.
6. They will feel enriched and empowered from the experience.
7. They will trust the information.
Take a look at WatsonPaths developed by IBM Research:
— WatsonPaths is a great example of bringing the content up to the interface level for a more natural interaction to assist physicians to make more informed and accurate decisions faster.
Designers should design for both system 1 and system 2. Starting first with the content that requires the concentration of system 2, then designing the interface to support that content without generating cues for system 1 to distract our audience. Our designs should not guide our audience to where we want them to go, but empower them to learn and dig deeper for a greater understanding on their own.