Designing the No-Screen Experience

This post started from my frustration with web design guidelines that continually place the emphasis on visual design; from a failure to engage with what the underlying principles of the Web really are, within the industry of User Experience,
and with encouragement by the folks at helpmewrite and Richard Northover for the ‘test’ inspiration.

I don’t believe that starting with a visual design is the right thing to do, if your aim is to produce the best user experience for the widest audience, in a realistic time-scale and budget. There are three reasons for this:

1. Accessibility
2. Devices change. The whole time.
3. What the Web is (APIs and future proofing)

Given that we accept the following:
1) You cannot ever fully know the circumstances, context and abilities of your users
2) Devices designed to interact with the Web and the Internet are changing the whole time

I’d propose a counterpart to the ‘Test of Independent Invention’:
If someone was able to interact with your experience with a device that does not have any kind of screen, could they still do so?

The point is that the Web (and, for that matter, the Internet) does *not* depend on screens for interaction. Sure, they are one, currently very major, way of interacting with electronic media, but they are not the only way – witness Apple’s Siri, whose primary interface is through voice. Even if that example is slightly spurious, it is undeniable that screens are not a pre-requisite for interfacing with the Internet or Web.

Therefore, when designing Web experiences, we should consider the case of someone wanting to interact with your experience without access to a screen. Not only does this help us, as designers, with ensuring that those who have accesibility needs are catered for from the start, it also gives us some form of future-proofing, away from locking ourselves into current device screen sizes or interaction patterns. Yes, you’ll still need to design those things too, but if you’re serious about designing something that lasts, something that reaches the widest possible audience, and something that you can easily rework into the unknown interaction standards of the future, your starting point can’t just be content first, it needs to be with no screen in mind, too.

All of which is another way of saying – designing for the Web should start with your content as the input, and a Web, literally a Web, as the output. From here, you can layer on top an API – which, again, defines the possible interactions regardless of visual layer. Then, start thinking about the simplest possible ways of interacting and experiencing your content – machines as your least able user, screen readers and beyond. And then, yes, by all means, design specifically for whatever the current top of the range devices or interaction patterns are. But it’s just not good business sense to start from the top down, every time. And it really is something for user experience designers to engage with. If you’re truly interested in designing the experience, then the no screen experience is the purest form of this.

P.S. And another thing – realising that the Web isn’t the screen is, in some ways, incredibly freeing. It means that we can start to be much more imaginative about the web experiences we design. A bit more futuristic and fun. All those digital experiences you think about designing – what if they weren’t just designed with IP (Internet protocol) in mind, but with the idea of interacting with a Web? That, for me, is the exciting bit about designing webs, rather than just designing screens – it’s a much more generative space to play in. So not only can you create accessible, functional and simply *good quality* user experiences, but you can really go for truly innovative ways of interacting with the Web, too.

3 thoughts on “Designing the No-Screen Experience

  1. Jeremy

    Well said, and inspiring! To a limited extent, I think a lot of practitioners already do this. I do. Some. KIND of. But not in a consistent, disciplined manner. Thanks for the post!

  2. frankieroberto

    I think this is a good idea, but it’s also very hard because it means thinking very abstractly about designing the experience, whereas in most forms of communication and creative expression, the medium and the message are inextricably linked.

    For example in spoken language you rely the assumption that someone can hear and see you, and thus use tone, gestures, facial expression and so on which can utterly change the meaning vs if someone was just listening to a recording of your voice or reading a transcript.

    Similarly written text carries the assumption of being read silently with eyes, and so it’s natural to include references to illustrations (“see below”), to other bits of the physical output (“turn to page…”) or other forms of visual adornment (e.g. you even do it above, using * around text to add emphasis).

    That said, written text is more abstract and universal than in-person linguistics communication. The Web is in-theory more universal again, but because most people interact with it via a colour screen on a computer or mobile device, it’s incredibly tempting (and possibly even cognitively instinctive?) to rely upon that in designing the experience.

    All of which is not to excuse the idea of not bothering with accessible, universal Web UX (especially when it’s a public service), but I think it’s worth acknowledging that it’s pretty hard and counter-intuitive to do so.

    Especially for designers, who mainly come from a Visual Arts tradition. It’s like asking Picasso to create a painting which you don’t need to see to experience…

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