Invisibility & Impulses

An essay on the hidden world of design.

Note as of Jun 9, 2021: The idea behind this essay is pretty compelling, but the writing doesn’t make the argument clear. I might rewrite this at some point.

When people talk about design, they don’t usually frame it very usefully. They’ll talk about its “beauty,” “simplicity,” or “elegance”—but these fancy words don’t really mean anything to you and me. In this essay, by showing you how I use design to see the world differently, I’ll try to make it something you can actually relate to. I’m going to do this in two parts: Invisibility and Impulses.

Invisibility

We don’t think about the design of chairs, or lamps, or cups, because they’re mostly solved problems. This isn’t a bad thing, because invisibility is a property of good design—in fact, one of the most popular podcasts on design is called 99% Invisible. But this invisibility represents a missed opportunity to learn from bad design. Because we can’t see the choices that good designers make, we can’t hone our own problem-solving skills.

Let me illustrate this with an example. When I was a kid visiting the US, I noticed that building doors opened outwards instead of inwards like India. My dad explained that this was because doors that open outwards are safer: In an emergency, it’s easy for a crowd of people to push against them and open them up. If I’d grown up in the States, I probably would’ve missed this.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how we can discover design choices like this intentionally rather than by accident. I’ve come across a very effective method: I believe that by listening to ourselves while we navigate the digital world, we can better understand how design shapes the world around us.

Impulses

Just like the physical world, good design in the digital world is mostly invisible. However, there’s a key difference. While physical design is often about making things easier on the body, digital design tries to make them easier on the mind. In other words, digital designers are constantly trying to make things less annoying.

Consider the typing indicator on messaging apps, for example. Until Microsoft’s MSN Messenger Service first introduced it, it was pretty much unheard of. Today, nearly every messaging app tells you when the other person is typing. It’s subtle but effective.

However, subtle design choices like this have the potential to shape our thinking in unexpected ways. For instance, you’ve probably experienced the anxiety that comes with the typing indicator. It’s like an awkward silence. On its own, this is a relatively benign problem. But it doesn’t stop there, because the typing indicator can actually impede honest conversation: A lot of us write long messages only to pause and delete them after we see the other person’s typing indicator. This frequently obscures our true intentions.

Another example of subtle design causing unforeseen issues can be found in the retweet. In Twitter’s early days, if you wanted to retweet something, you had to manually copy and paste it into your own tweet. To fix this, they introduced the retweet button as a convenient shortcut. But they missed something important: Making people copy and paste to retweet something meant they’d actually consider it before retweeting. After the introduction of the button, people began to retweet all kinds of stuff without second thought. This ended up fueling misinformation on the platform. (For this reason, Twitter actually made a design change to the button for election season.)

These examples point to the idea that digital design is shaped by impulses—simple, subconscious thoughts that change how we interact with our tech. We’re used to ignoring them. My thesis here is that they actually aren’t that hard to listen to: Whenever I feel happy or frustrated with my tech, I try to reflect on why that is. I’ve discovered a ton about the world just by doing this, and I think it’s made me a better designer.

This process is how I imagine a lot of startups come about. For instance, Uber was founded out of a frustration with the clunkiness of ordering cabs. Most of us wouldn’t question this frustration, but someone did. In a future essay, I’ll explore how we can harness this mode of thinking to come up with ideas and build an “idea pipeline” in our brains.


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