Invisibility is Our Superpower

When meeting new people, I’m often asked, “So, what do you do?”  I usually throw out various terms like Interaction Design, UI Design, UX — all the while scanning the questioner’s face for a hint of recognition. More often than not, the person politely smiles and nods…and then asks, “What’s that?”  Once I finish explaining the particulars of interaction design, I’m often met with “Oh, I didn’t know that was a specific job.”

A colleague recently pointed me to an article in the Wall Street Journal discussing David Zweig’s book (“Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion”) about professions that are mostly “invisible” — e.g., anesthesiologists, fact-checkers, translators — that is, their work, when done well, goes largely unnoticed by the public. This got me thinking that this is exactly what we strive to do as interaction designers. We design interactions that aren’t unnecessarily showy, but are so seamless and integral to the product that they just feel right. It’s a tenet that users notice interaction design only when it is done poorly, or when it wasn’t considered at all.

And yet — as the WSJ article points out — purposefully dedicating oneself to working in a largely unrecognized milieu is anachronistic in this age of relentless self-promotion. If our best work doesn’t loudly toot its own horn, how do we convince prospective clients that we are good at what we do?

These days, more and more people are claiming to be designers that do what we do. They use any variety of acronyms and jargon to describe their role – UI, UX, IxD, and Information Architecture. Anecdotally, we have witnessed that many of the people claiming to do this type of design don’t actually have a firm grasp on the details and intricacies of interaction design, or of designing complex systems – they are too caught up in snazzy animations and surface-level visuals.

Clients can be seduced by these things if they, too, don’t have a real understanding of the objectives of good, usable interaction design. In a well-designed product, the ways to interact seem obvious to users, but in fact are the end result of many carefully considered decisions and nuanced problem solving. A product’s ease of use belies the amount of design that went into it. Communicating the value of truly thoughtful, deep, and subtle design over superficialities is essential to our jobs as designers, and as spokespeople for our profession.

A high-level business professional recently asked us of Swim, “What’s your superpower?” And while there are many things we could answer – proven results, the ability to quickly understand and solve very complex problems, deep empathy with users, significant experience across many diverse domains – the real answer is that our superpower is invisibility. We design interactions that don’t call attention to themselves while serving the objectives of the products and the users. We ensure that the tool does not get in the way of the task. Our designs speak for themselves, while conversely not speaking loudly at all – they just work.