Normativity by design: Challenging the ideal of the invisible interface
“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. To some, this means futuristic ideals of non-material interfaces, to most, it means designing things in such a way that an interface seems natural, intuitive, and, through this, “invisible” to users. But rarely do we stop and ask: What are the implications of such a (seemingly) invisible interface? 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 it surfaces in contemporary design work, and what we might want to do differently in the future. For while there have been increased efforts in the design industry to address questions of power, ethics, and inequality recently, the idea(l) of the invisible interface has gone surprisingly unchallenged.
Ultimately, my goal with this talk 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.
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