The instinct for many designers is to apply familiar terms of “intuition” and “invisibility” to descriptions of optimal interface designs. These descriptors are turning into catch-all words meant to explain other qualities such as ease of use, smooth interaction, and noninvasiveness. As I have argued elsewhere, these adjectives are inaccurate and potentially harmful. Analogies such as intuition and invisibility are mundane but harmful. They are often used to explain to clients or non-design audiences that interfaces will be easy to use, without requiring any special instruction, and in fact so easy that the user will forget they are there. Harking back to discussions of readiness-to-hand, we can see how this view is attractive and in a certain sense appropriate to a phenomenological conception of the interface. The problem is that these descriptors become overused and work themselves into the practical discourse of design, causing professional designers to take their implications for granted and over-simplify their own work. Calling an interface “intuitive,” or striving to design an interface that is invisible, takes the “unsemiotic” nature of affordances very seriously, perhaps too seriously. The implicit goal is to create an interface that communicates its affordances in the clearest, most “natural,” and most non-conscious manner as possible, so that a user might automatically know how to use the interface without calling upon cultural, linguistic, or learned information. The problem is that almost all of our interactions call upon this type of information, and design principles that call for its eradication are almost impossible to achieve.
After all, designers are in the business of creating the artificial. We can certainly create objects that attempt to communicate their use, but this attempt is just that: an attempt. The use of prototypes and frequent testing is of great importance given these design goals around invisibility and intuition; it is not an easy, cheap, or quick process to achieve this type of outcome. And in many cases, this radically smooth interaction is not at all desirable. We might want to highlight the interface or the object of design as an object in order to sustain conscious awareness. Even if the advocate is unaware, arguments for intuition and invisibility often insert a hierarchical relationship between smooth interaction and conscious interaction, assuming the former is always desirable to the latter. One might even use Heidegger’s conception of presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand as the basis for the argument, forgetting or ignoring the sense that Heidegger did not necessarily advocate one as better than the other. He was merely articulating readiness-to-hand as a more common mode of interaction.