Invisibility, power, and normativity in design
“Interfaces can be consciously designed to create ease for a certain group of people, and that ‘ease’ (and power) is predicated precisely on its invisibility for the ‘average user’.” – Michelle Kendrick, 2005
One of the most persistent myths in design is that, ideally, interfaces should be invisible: that they should feel so natural and intuitive to users that they (almost) disappear for them. Inspired by work in critical interface studies, this talk is about how our attachment to the invisible interface is inevitably bound up with issues of power and inequality – sometimes in ways we might not have anticipated or intended, but which nonetheless cause real and preventable harm.
Using examples from my doctoral research on norms and ideals in UX writing, I offer a critical examination of the myth of the invisible interface. I elaborate on some of its historical roots, how invisibility surfaces in contemporary design work, and what we might want to do differently in the future. In particular, I draw attention to the role that our own, often privileged experience plays in this, an aspect that is sometimes neglected in discussions of design ethics. Ultimately, my goal is to illustrate the pervasiveness of the invisible interface, challenge its persistency, and reflect on how we might detach ourselves from this in many ways problematic ideal. Because in the end, an invisible interface always normalizes certain ways of being while obscuring or even invalidating others.
Lara Portmann just finished her PhD at the University of Bern, where she researched UX writing and its cultural-political implications. This involved asking questions such as: How is language used to imagine and design users? How do UX professionals describe and make sense of their own work and its consequences? How are such design practices connected to social norms regarding, for instance, class, gender, or race?
Before this, Lara worked at a small UX agency in Bern, where she was responsible for content and UX research.