Unlike most of the content found on our site, this Q&A goes against the digital grain and ferries fresh perspective into the mobile app designer, developer or marketer's bubble of content consumption.
Today we had the pleasure of talking with Golden Krishna, a design strategist, author, lecturer and thought leader. We invited Golden to speak with us on the topic of UX design, and he willingly oblidged, sharing his opinion on what he calls our "love affair" of screens and why it's not the right approach for designing a good user experience. Golden's perspective is drawn from years spent researching the best approach to UX design at several large companies that sell both digital and physical products, including Samsung, Zappos and now Google.
One of our favorite quotes from Golden is "there's a lot of confusion about what design should be doing in technology today." Golden has encapsulated this perspective and others on the topic in his best-selling book, titled, "The Best Interface is No Interface." His book is as enlightening a read as it is hilarious, and is an intriguing change of pace from the usual app/tech blogs. Enjoy this interview, which explores the concept of the best UI being no UI, and includes excerpts from Golden's book.
Incipia: Hi Golden. Thanks for joining us today!
Golden: Great to be hanging out with you today. Love that jacket, btw. This is such a great bar.
Incipia: Just had it tailored last week! Anyhow – in your book “The Best Interface is No Interface: A Simple Path to Brilliant Technology,” you take the role explaining why our love-affair with apps does not lead to healthy or efficient design decisions. Yet, as an app agency, we naturally must ask: do you think that there are any design problems that apps are well-suited to solve for?
Golden: Months before my book was released I gave a lecture about my book at an intimate design conference in Portland. When I got off stage, a young designer approached me to profess something you might not expect: he told me he hoped I fail. Sure, he enjoyed the lecture, but in seriousness, he hoped I was completely fucking wrong.
Because if what I was saying on stage came true, he believed he would soon be unemployed. He was trained in the art of pixels — creating and placing them with precision — so if we were to end up my world of “No Interface” — a future world where the glowing rectangles of our contemporary lives were replaced by more advanced technological experiences so elegant that they don’t rely on graphical user interfaces at all — he might end up on the Portland streets offering Dribbble shots for PBRs wearing a knitted hat in the summer.
I told him something that I think is a fundamental part of being a maker in technology: you have to always be ready to adapt, change, and make the very best thing you can with the latest stuff. Look, the fundamental PROCESSES of being a great maker never changes, but the TOOLS you use to get them done and the MEDIUMS in which you express them will always be evolving.
So you may consider yourselves an app agency today, but I would argue that will change. We evolved from command line to graphical user interface. Big desktop software fell out of flavor to the universal web; and now to mobile apps. We’ll continue to evolve again and again and again. Perhaps from UI to NoUI. From mobile to AI. So you may consider yourselves an app agency today, but I would argue that will change.
That said, given the strength, power, and awareness of apps today, there is something I describe in my book as the low-hanging fruit of the screenless future that might fit perfectly into your agency, something I call Backpocket Apps. (Chapter 11, page 85). Much of The Best Interface is No Interface feels like a guidebook for designers in 5-10 years, but this idea is so straightforward and doable today: an app that solves problems in your life while your phone sits in your pocket. Something apps can do that can radically advance the business of any company.
I was asked recently to give startups in a small historical San Francisco theater a secret, largely untapped growth opportunity and Backpocket Apps is the gift I gave them:
If you don’t like to watch videos on YouTube, I also gave a quick overview of the idea for over at the academic UX Booth. Listen, I can only guide a horse to the water, so I recommend you take a drink. The water is good with Backpocket Apps.
Incipia: In chapter two of your book, you mention the concept of "reframing the design question,” in the context of designing a better car or key, rather than a better car app. What does this concept entail?
Golden: For the last 30 years, we’ve been building technological experiences that begins with a technique that is swaying us away from something so much greater. Get a couple of techies together, give them some legitimate problems, and you’ll see them unconsciously commit a mental glitch that has been holding us back for decades. Something that has led to lost opportunities, customers, and potentially billions of dollars of revenue in offering more valuable services.
What’s the mistake? The glitch? Also, can I get a refill?
The first thing they draw is what I call a lazy rectangle. A simple representation of a screen that inadvertently leads them to try to jam everything in that 3:4 shape with dull unoriginal self-justified patterns and superfluous steps that are often far from the real customer problems at hand. Where does the logo go? The nav? Instantly the problem to be solved has become secondary to the pixel. Unoriginal pattern-following supersedes unique problem solving.
When The Verge wanted to post an excerpt of Chapter 2, I think it was because there is something so powerful about the example I listed in that chapter in the book, and how it reveals the first of the three basics principles of the book.
See, even though applications existed long before the iPhone, when Apple’s now trademarked words — “There’s an App for That!” — grew into popular culture in the noughties, it felt as though every company had fallen in love with the naughty swipe and tap. So BMW, like others did and still do today, started trying to make improvements to their customer experience with an app. One of their first attempts was to try to improve the car key by, well, making an app for that. Lazy rectangles everywhere. Hell, Apple apparently now believes we live in The Planet of Apps and what could be wrong with some advice from Will.i.am?
Here’s roughly how BMW’s app worked from the customer’s viewpoint when released on iOS:
- Walk up to my car.
- Pull out my smartphone.
- Unlock my phone.
- Exit my last opened app.
- Exit my last opened group.
- Swipe through a sea of icons, searching for the app.
- Tap the app icon.
- Wait for the app to load and try to nd the unlock action.
- Make a guess with the menu and tap Control.
- Tap the Unlock button.
- Slide the slider to unlock.
- Physically open the car door.
Did I mention the future of TV is apps?
When looking over the ridiculousness of the experience, and the monstrosity of steps 2 through 11, the first principle becomes clear: why don’t we “embrace typical processes instead of screens”? In other words, observe the current experience, and create something that works within our typical routines. A set of steps that look something more like this:
- Walk up to my car.
- Physically open the car door.
Everything but the graphical user interface.
In the late 90s, before Apple’s big marketing push towards apps, Mercedes Benz and Siemens Systems worked on a system that did that exactly. You walked up to your car, you went to open it, when you pulled the handle an RFID search started and it looked for your keys. If it was in your pocket or purse, then bam, the door just opened. The whole system worked while your keys just sat in your pocket.
It embraced your typical process. And that’s what every tech company should be doing.
Incipia: What is the main purpose(s) of an interface, and what are some ways in which you feel digital interfaces are ineffectual?
Golden: In the late 1970s and early 80s, we interacted with computers in a way that was designed by programmers for programmers. CD. DIR. A nightmarish guessing game for those that chose to spend their free hours bonding with other humans rather than a machine, missing out on late nights by a bag of potato chips memorizing IBMs new language.
Graphical user interfaces gave birth to the window, the icon, the menu and the pointer. All of a sudden what we saw is what we got. We just pointed and clicked. A graphical user interface gave us explicit controls. The ability to convey information with a liquid display. It felt amazing. Anyone, even Lisa, could now use a computer to create.
But as a maker’s obsession has grown around solving everything with a screen, a new kind of pollution has emerged. Obsession with metrics of engagement has led to intentional addiction. A greater ask for “users” to avoid other humans. Intentional inefficiency to increase monthly actives. Driving engagement has become even more important than driving forward factual information. Whatever gets you a click, even if it might have global consequences. Adults spend over 8 hours a day staring into the light. Teens, in the United States, despite mostly being in school, over 7 hours a day. Often being misinformed in the age of information. And as studies show, losing empathy -- the ability to relate to those unlike us, certainly not important at this nationalist moment in human history -- every hour we stare at the screen.
Interfaces are distracting us from our own minds, our friends and family around us, from seeing the communities where we live, dividing us at a national scale, and misinforming us at a global level.
Incipia: You have become a thought leader in design thinking, with experiences spanning a diversity of technology and companies. From your perspective, what new trends (e.g. VR or the Internet of Things) are you most excited to leverage in your work?
Golden: I’ve been lucky to have spent my last three jobs trying to answer the boyhood wonder of any tech fan staring into the stars late at night: What’s next? What’s coming? How can we take a monumental leap forward? Though terms like “innovation” get tossed around all too easily, actually innovating, actually pushing the boundaries of what companies, people, products, and our field is capable of doing is an incredibly difficult and painstaking task filled with trials and tribulation, repeated failure, and forever optimism that we can indeed figure it out. I’ve had the good fortune of helping guide Samsung into completely new product areas, Zappos in expanding its possibilities, and now Google to make their powerful possibilities even more powerful. (More to come on the last one).
So what is next?
Well, to rapid fire on the topics you just mentioned: VR has gaming and documentary filmmaking potential hardly tapped into, AR can revolutionize learning, but is still too clunky, IOT is held back by competing standards and a lack of qualitative research that goes beyond “turn on the lights.” Voice has potential to sweep away minor UI tasks, reducing our screen time, but is currently a black hole of guessing commands and a victim of unreal expectations of humane back-and-forth dialogue, perhaps perpetuated by science fiction movies. All have potential unseen.
The screenless, NoUI world I describe in my book, is more a philosophy than a particular technology. It’s the culmination of many things that are indeed coming together now. In automotive, for example, we’re seeing cars that can stop by themselves, lane detection and swerving protection, and smarter airbags. In healthcare, hospital beds that shy away from touchscreens and manual inputs for machine learning and sensor input. NoUI is a way of thinking that is gaining momentum.
Look, there’s a lot that’s coming, and I wholeheartedly hope that it leads to a life of less screens. But I can’t make that future happen alone, I need your help, and together we can escape our world of being screen zombies.
Thanks for the drink. I ought to head home now or the wife will get suspicious. Really great to meet you guys.
Incipia: Haha not a problem – the pleasure was all ours. Thanks for joining us here at Campbell's Apartment. It's a shame this place won't be around for much longer. Until next time, Golden!
Golden Krishna is a designer at Google and the author of “The Best Interface is No Interface”, a best-selling book about building a screen-less world. He has worked at innovation teams at Google, Samsung, and Zappos to imagine, design, build the future of technology.
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