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Chromeless: The Content is the Interface

If we want to better understand the power of the contemporary software interface, then it’s useful to look at the social context. The emerging Millennial generation, for example, is disillusioned with the wide gulf between their consumer and corporate digital experiences. In terms of lost productivity, this is only the tip of an iceberg. We are experiencing a generational shift in which hardware platforms, code, and expected behavior are driving a software evolution.

Many large companies today (which we’ll refer to as “the Enterprise”) need to define the next generation of best-in-class operations and client-facing tools that will deliver workflow optimization and cut costs. Investing in such interfaces will impact the evolutionary advantage of the Enterprise in a positive way because interfaces have functions beyond simple command-and-control; interfaces are, in fact, the calculus of future organizational and specialized knowledge, and the key to enduring and successful collaboration.

The defining experience of any new technology today is all about context. The software interfaces we use to perceive, access, and engage digital workflows are evolving to be more simple and direct. Until recently UI was expressed as an abstract enclosure (or “chrome”), but now it is recessive and getting out of our way to expose the plain fact of physical place or network node. There can no longer be an abstraction: the content is the context and the context defines the interface.

This context awareness is best embodied by device platforms and display technologies. A pivotal experience in this evolution of perception is the transition between display states, from one that is outside-in to inside-out. The surface is no longer the limit: while we once moved across the screen, we now move through it, and the world moves with us.

The modern UI is a resource that can enable us to identify even deeper, more complex patterns and connections within the vast and growing ocean of data in the workplace and beyond. How we think about data, information, and knowledge-management through the interfaces we use defines the limitations of the patterns we can identify and use.

If you play with the frame of these information spaces and the envelope of interaction possibilities across physical and digital platforms, the user awareness of data types and media content expands from there. This leads to new models of behavior and the desire to work in a different way, which in turn becomes new service offerings to meet these demands, and finally, value creation.

Consider the success of the iPhone and iOS ecosystem, which have created new expectations for all of our digital experiences. In their design, Apple used real world references such as the leather-bound desk calendar and yellow legal pad note pages to help users acclimate to this new consumer technology. As a result, Apple and iOS developers successfully established swipe, tap, and visual patterns that became familiar and popular for a broad range of interactions.

As the smartphone market expanded and mobile computing became ubiquitous, real world references in UI were no longer necessary. Apple’s iOS looked garish compared to more abstracted interface designs introduced by marquee companies like Google and Microsoft. There can no longer be an abstraction: the content is the context and the context defines the interface.

Realizing this shift in public perception, Apple’s iOS 7 reduced real world references, metaphors, and general visual clutter. Apple shifted its product experience in the direction of its competitors, with content and convenience taking center stage.

These companies and the design community have realized the need for simplification. They are moving away from complex interfaces and streamlining their product experiences, providing delight to customers by delivering on the true value of their product without unnecessary distractions.

Yet, developers of enterprise software have not. This is causing problems for the many professionals who have adopted new digital expectations and for companies concerned about productivity and retention of talent.

Paradigm Shift

At frog, we are creating a new visual design strategy for enterprise software. Our goal is to identify guiding UI principles that meet the expectations of consumer and corporate users who acknowledge that legacy enterprise software is limited, counterintuitive, and lacks a pleasing visual aesthetic.

A guiding principle is that the most delightful interface is the one you never notice. The goal is to reduce the visual excess and ornamentation, and instead to champion the content, data, and interactions in our design. Instead of a mirrored surface, such as Apple’s early iOS, our workplace interface will be a window with a clear view to broad and accessible content. With this design approach, the content is the interface.

Windowed or transparent interfaces attempt to remove the unnecessary and sometimes overwhelming chrome to push content and action forward. User delight is not derived from the intrinsic visual interface, but from the outcomes the interface enables. The simplicity of the visuals designed allows the content to become a functional focus by emphasizing intuitive interactions, a clean grid, elegant typography, and a clear hierarchy. This design language has a higher potential for adoption because it reduces complexity.

The foundation of this approach relies on the availability of sophisticated data to power an appropriate set of controls, allowing the user to navigate and parse information in all ways they deem valuable. Systems with high levels of complexity need simple, clear visual cues that put the user in control without hindering or overpowering the content. This type of interface creates a sense of trust and transparency in the content and the system, as well as in the company.

As we build tools that embody this approach, it is critical to consider scalability. Businesses need comprehensive software ecosystems, rather than one-off solutions that address a singular need. Along with multiple applications, we must also consider a growing need for mobility and multiple hardware devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, and laptops). We want to encourage a sense of freedom with designs that provide users with the right information at the right time and place.

Enterprise software is overdue for a radical transformation. The legacy systems of the past no longer meet the needs of the changing workplace, advancing technology, and our connected world. By designing a scalable enterprise ecosystem we can create a sense of timelessness through design that is honest, easy to use, and without excessive noise and distraction. While technology evolves, this design approach will continue to gain traction as our ecosystems become more sophisticated and complex.

scott

Scott Nazarian

Scott leads (UX) design teams, focuses (and unfocuses) minds, and foments discussion and ideas.

David Smith

David Smith

David specializes in visual and interaction design for branded user-experiences.

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The NUI and or content is nav paradigm shift is a win for all the reasons you've and others have pointed out, but I would argue only where context warrants it. Complex tasks in some instances require complex controls and modular views based on the pivot of the user's intent. It would be great if, for example, Photoshop detected based on my interaction patterns when I wanted to switch a layer or use a different tool and all those toolbars were not just not needed. But that's not and I hardly doubt can be programmed for all use cases. If we look at respective UX blogs and archived research from Autodesk, Oracle, IBM, Salesforce etc. we quickly gain insight into why content does not preside over controls for the content authors.
Petar Subotic, 2015-05-11 22:35:29

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