Anticipating Intention

It is popular these days to say the best designed graphical user interface is “no interface.” Instead of a big button that says Take a picture, you might just tap on the person’s face on screen to do so. The interface recedes—it doesn’t get in the way of you and taking a picture. The button becomes invisible.

“No interface” is an interesting ideal to strive for. But pursuing it for the sake of making an interface invisible is a mistake. There will always be some interface. Perhaps good design is an interface that anticipates a person’s intent. Rather than be invisible it instead understands what you want to do. It’s a meaningful interface.

Here’s what I mean by this:

In my car, the back of the sun visor has a door that is covering a mirror. When I slide the door open, the lights above the sun visor illuminate.

I pull the visor down to block the sun glare. The light doesn’t turn on. My intention is to pull down the sun visor so I can see better. Sliding the door to reveal the mirror turns on the light. My intention to reveal the mirror is to check my face.

The sun visor is designed perfectly to anticipate my intentions. There are no additional buttons, no knobs, no Turn on Light switches.

Another example of an interface that anticipates intention is my car’s air conditioning. When I turn the dial all the way to cold the air conditioning kicks in. The design anticipates my intention: I want it really cold in the cabin.

These user interfaces that anticipate intention are not unique to my car. They’re probably in yours too. It’s important to examine these designs because we’re still trying to figure this problem out in graphical user interfaces.

Industrial designers have been solving these problems all along. There will never be “no interface.” There will always be an interface of some kind. In the future it might be voice, or it might be walking into a room. What is the person’s intent in using that interface? Finding the answer might lead to, well, less interface.