Krishna, G. (2015). The best interface is no interface: The simple path to brilliant technology.
What good is all our computational power if our best minds are consumed building more “lazy rectangles” for screens? Through the GUI, problem solving and tool making have all been channeled into flatland. Golden Krishna calls out the absurdity of our current screen-based thinking when applied unrelentingly in almost every aspect of our already screen-oriented lives. His call for no UI computing laid out here in performative, pictographic formulations is stirring in a deeply funny way. With so many of us living in or close to “peak screen” — the point when there are no more waking hours left to stare into screens — the process of reengaging with our bodies and the physical worlds around us requires a fundamental change in how we conceive and deliver human-computer interactions.
How might we imagine a future where computers support us in the background, where we can accomplish more without looking into a screen and where our thinking can be opened up past the edges of lazy rectangles and back into our own bodies? After all, since our bodies have evolved to interact in complex ways with our environments, why limit ourselves to a debilitating posture bent over keyboards and screens?
I am encouraged by the examples of no UI Krishna sets out and find inspiration to push those boundaries myself beyond “back pocket apps” into new interactions that are truly no UI and as I would hope, architecturally integrated. Unfortunately, good examples of no UI interaction seem scarce. As he describes they are scattered throughout the past fifty years they do not show a trend towards less screens despite the benefits such interactions would have for our wellness and cognition as whole body thinkers. We seem far from finding a new way of being as homo informaticus and reducing the number of screens in our lives. Most of the time user experience research proceeds directly into user interface design (let’s build an app!), a confounding situation that truncates UX into more screen based UI. Krishna’s book acknowledges that certain tasks in knowledge work must be done on a screen. And perhaps it just feels inconceivable how we would compose and create with any seriousness in another environment. If so, that is because we have barely glimpsed the computing world beyond those lazy rectangles. A more humane vision of technology, one that allows us to use our whole bodies to think and learn is not, it seems, part of a linear progression in interface design. Krishna’s thinking may be the rallying point we need to start dislodging the screen obsession.
The work of Bret Victor, another thinker no UI space, provides some clues on how we might move ahead and actually gain momentum away from the pull the ubiquitous black mirrors. He proposes computers as places rather than objects. The hybrid graphical user interface (GUIs) and tangible user interfaces (TUIs) he illustrates are the successors to the workshop or maker space. Collectively, and with the advantages of carefully designed ergonomics, sensors and yes, some screen surfaces, he envisions new ways of seeing and consequently manipulating information both in flatland and in the physical world. We are living in an opportune moment that implies hybridization, However, “smart objects” and enchanted environments still rely too heavily on screen based thinking, requiring a multitude of new apps and addictive interfaces. Bret Victor’s approach in building new types of thinking spaces could be the freeing catalyst that would launch more products without screen interfaces. Perhaps the way ahead isn’t using screens to design our way out of flatland, perhaps we need to return to the workbench and create hybrid physical digital work spaces in order to rewire ourselves first. And then we might try to redefine our relationships with computers so as to think and experience information in ways that engage our bodies.