The conflict between sustainable and “invisible” design

No to No Ui

Here is an outstanding article on the perils of “invisible design” and the belief in the Internet as a sort of weightless “spirit world.” Invisible design, as an extension of the “less is more concept” has been a part of computer interfaces since the rise of the Internet, fueled by notions like convergence and Ux. In other words, “great design should be experience and not seen.”

In practice, invisible design on the web tries to hide the complexity of the web, so the user is only conscious of their interaction, and not the interface and technology that makes it possible.

The biggest problem with “invisible” design approaches, from the perspective of Sustainable Virtual Design, is that it encourages the notion that nothing is going on when you access the web. In other words, your design is “weightless” with regard to its impact and consequence. A related idea is that the user shouldn’t have to know how something works, only how it acts.

I explored the problems with the “design is weightless” theory at length in my article for .NET magazine:

Save the planet through sustainable web design

I’m not the only one to tie the elasticspace post to sustainability. Here’s a blog post by Frank Chimero’ with great commentary on the elasticspace post applying it to sustainability, echoing almost exactly the .NET article’s critique of “weightless” design.

The Cloud is Heavy and Design Isn’t Invisible

Reading both these posts made me think about how dominant the “invisible design” approach is today. One of the biggest trends is to convert keyboard/mouse imput into moving in 3D space, e.g. using gesture-tracking technology found on the Wii or Kinect system by Microsoft.  I wonder how valuable 3D “invisible” interfaces actually are.  There has been lots of excitement about converting interaction with a mouse, joystick, touchscreen into waving your arms in the air. Part of the appeal is a wish to command objects to fly around, fake Dragonball attack style.  However, it’s not clear that making your interface (literally) invisible is such a good thing. After all, the Thermin was invented close to 80 years ago.

If this was ideal, why not just make our our synths with a Thermin interface? It has been around since the 1920s. It seems cool, but is it harder to use strings or a keyboard than to wave hands in 3D?

At the very least, “invisible design” – both in the literal sense above, and in the broader sense of “the best typeface is one that I don’t notice” has problems for sustainability. In order for people to act in a sustainable way, they have to know and understand that their local activity is tied into a broader ecosystem. On the web, a visit to a website is not just about the experience of the video – it also activates a huge virtual food chain of servers, routers, and computer hardware. The “seamless” aspect of invisible design – an attempt to make a bunch of different service elements look like one thing – runs exactly counter to making users aware of their virtual ecosystem.

For sustainability, the attempt to make a smooth, seamless interface that doesn’t betray its back-end complexity is the equivalent of US states declaring they have “green” recycling – but invisibly shipping their e-waste off to China where the tiny fingers of village kids work soooo hard to make the planet greener. It allows eco-trendies to pretend they are saving the planet while they tap away on their laptops and tablets. While these devices use less power than desktops, if you factor in the larger ecosystem of the cellphone tower forest, they don’t look that much greener at all. The Internet connection has been made “invisible” – instead of a user consciously connecting to the net with a wire, they instead are “just connected” to a universal, invisible “cloud” with no form or consequence, except is roles as enabler in the “conspiracy for good.”

Here’s a good quote on the “cloud” from Frank Chimero’s blog:

It’s worrisome that The Cloud as a metaphor clarifies the benefits of its user’s experience, yet hides the repercussions of that convenience. (Of course, it’s old hat in capitalism to conceal the unsavory bits of production behind a curtain.) What kind of energy does that data factory use? Where does it come from? And how does it compare to the energy used if we kept all this data locally? How does that building affect the community where it is built? And what are the repercussions of having all that data in one place?

Even worse, gesture recognition and invisible design interfaces will encourage the rising generation of digital natives, recently dubbed Plurals, to believe they live in a magic world, where things like connection and response to intent happen by magic. Millennials, currently aged ~10-30 years old, are digital “immigrants” – they can remember the rise of network technology, and have some grasp the complex “web” (that’s why they called it a web) of hardware and software making digital communication possible. Millennials and older generations know indirectly that there must be a man behind the curtain putting on the show.

But the move to invisible design makes it possible that the digital natives of the Plural generation (who are all 10 years or younger in 2013), will forget this fact for all practical purposes, and have difficulty grasping the complex, fragile, interconnected aspect of the Internet, along with its carbon emissions. In fact, they will never know, or be taught what the “cloud” actually is. Discussions of environmental cost will be just words and numbers to them. The web and its cloud will have the same features in their mind as magic spells or oracles of previous generations.

This belief in magic will be encouraged by invisible design, invoking Clarke’s Third Law for real:

 …Any sufficiently advanced (replace with “invisibly designed”) technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Look at the magical gathering below…

a group of the Plural generation, digital natives, share a common touchscreen and play in the virtual world
Magic that we are entitled to…

Now, implying that technology is magic is a common marketing trick. For many years, girl’s dolls invoked complex technology to mimic human life (e.g. walk or wet the bed) but all the advertising implied that girls preferred magic to tech. Now, the paternal aspect of “cloud” technology moves to shield all users from what it really is happing. Is this equivalent to selling a “magical” doll? What are the long-term consequences of keeping everyone, including children, in the dark?

Note that this is very different from protecting people from the nasty aspects of technology, which is legitimate.  Not everyone can cope with low-level IP protocols. We don’t want people to mess up their online experience by “exposing” what lies beneath – only ensure they understand what they are using.

The dark side of “invisible design” is to encourage a belief in the user in magic, hiding the real complexity – and therefore environmental consequence – of technology.

Now, a way out of this for Sustainable Virtual Design is to make sure that our interfaces “train” the user to understand the service they are using, while making their use efficient. That is, if we are online, the interface should have instructed us during ust understand there is an “online” and “offline” with different features and consequences. If we use an energy-hungry service, its operation should be displayed to the user in a way that they can intuit the consequences of using said service.

In other words, we might define a new principle for Sustainable Virtual Design at the design level, something like:

Sustainable Virtual Design should train and help its audience understand the larger Internet ecosystem. It should not try to hide its complexity behind a seamless interface, or indulge in formless notions like “cloud computing.” It should not try to pretend it is something that it is not, unless that furthers users understanding the system they are interacting with.

So, “invisible design” is one area where back-end reality should feed back onto front-end design choices. In the next post, I’ll consider how an alternate theory of sustainability – that employed for “permaculture” – can influence virtual design.

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