Visibly Invisible: Reimagining User Interactions

If a user is familiar with where a touch point is placed on a product traditionally, what happens when you undefine that touch point? This is something that sparked my interest with the release of the Dell XPS 13 Plus laptop. Dell made a striking choice with their new line of laptops by completely removing both the trackpad and row of function keys.

Dell XPS 13 Plus

While alternatives to function keys have been explored in the past, the trackpad’s form has remained relatively unchanged for many years now but, there has been significant improvements to how it’s engineered. Recent advancements in haptic vibration technology has removed the need for mechanical trackpads and some companies have integrated a second screen into the trackpad. The more unanimous trend however, is increasing the size of its form.

Dell has hopped on this trend but with a different approach — now it’s invisible. Now it’s seamlessly part of the laptop, a magical surface that behaves exactly how you expect it to. You open up a Dell XPS 13 Plus and you think, “Where’s the trackpad???”. Your first inclination is to touch where you’d think the trackpad would be and just like that it works! You apply some pressure to this surface to click and it works! There’s no need to outline it, recess it or even texture it, it’s invisible design and it’s exciting.

Interfaces are becoming more and more streamlined in both physical and digital interactions. We expect devices to work a certain way because we’ve become so familiar with common placement of touch points. Often we don’t even have to label buttons anymore because their position or size alone is sufficient for us to know what it does. On our phones a simple rectangular shape on one side of the phone is a power button, and on the other side we usually find two buttons or a longer button for volume control. Opportunity exists to simplify these interfaces even further by availing of our new found natural tendencies with technology interaction. Soon we could have portless and buttonless iPhones. One side of the iPhone could be a power button with pressure-activated haptic feedback and the other side could have a similar arrangement for volume controls. Not only could this transform the aesthetic of the iPhone but it could also prove very useful for accessibility and usability.

iPhone 13 with no buttons

With the entire side of a phone being used for an interaction, smaller hands would find it easier to interact with the phone. As well as this the pressure sensitivity could be adjustable for those with weaker acute skills or those who would like a more tactile feel.

Interestingly, the iPhone already has an invisible touch input that you may not have known about; the Apple logo on the back can be tapped to activate different functions on the phone. For instance, a double tap can open the camera while a triple tap can take a screenshot. This is a nice example of how an interface can be delightful when discovered by the user and not directly shown. When the user feels like they’ve discovered how to use a product by themselves, it can make them feel clever. I think invisible design could really tap into this idea and offer unique user experiences while encouraging designers to explore new forms and aesthetics in an arguably stagnating personal tech market and beyond.

Invisible IoT (Internet of Things)

Another aspect of invisible design is turning seemingly techless objects into connected devices. Suddenly a dining table is a discrete personal assistant, a picture frame knows when you walk into the living room and a bookshelf is recommending you new books to read. I observed invisible IoT at Milan Design Week with mui Lab’s range of smart products particularly the mui Smart Display: A simple slab of wood, mounted to the wall and with a gentle touch it becomes an entry point to the digital dimension.

mui Smart Device
mui at Milan Design Week (SuperDesign Show)

With our lives so enveloped in technology on a daily basis, it’s nice to have devices that can fade into the background and become part of our environment — only digital when needed. Invisible design encourages unobtrusive forms and allows for experience-led aesthetics.

A Trend or The Future?

If we see more invisible design in products, we may likely of course have usability issues. While many users who are familiar with common user input placement could benefit from invisible interactions aesthetically and functionally, users who are not so tech-savvy may find an invisible trackpad or power button a little confusing. Though I don’t think this is a reason not to explore invisible design. Much like the removal of the home button on iPhones in favour of an on-screen replacement, users eventually become accustomed to a new interface. So, I hope to see more invisible design in new tech that cleverly avail of our new-come natural intuition.

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