99% Invisible: Technology, Design, and Communication

It’s time to stop thinking about technology as technology, but it’s hard to get people to do that. Users are either fascinated or fearful of new technologies, and these gut reactions make them blind to the ‘”why” of it. In this three-part series, I want to spend some time looking at how design telegraphs intention to users, how we can design technology environments (both hardware and software) to telegraph augmentation instead of fear and frustration, and how we can explicitly use more overt communications strategies to augment users’ ability to leverage technology for teaching, learning, and productivity.

When designing a learning environment that involves technology, there are a couple of guiding truths that are too often overlooked — first, the central element of effective technology is design; and second, the design employed is an implicit form of communication. Like a well-composed photograph, a well-thought-out design creates a pleasing and rewarding effect, but often the viewer can’t explain why. Architects and designers have an expression for this: “Design should be 99% invisible.” This applies as much to technology as any building, artwork, or piece of furniture. (This reference is from a great podcast “99% Invisible,” which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic of design in all of its applications.)

Unless you are a technician or technologist, the central function of technology should be as an invisible augmentation of the hard tasks we face every day. This is a difficult message to convey to both technology professionals and the average user because it requires an understanding of the importance of design in technology utilization. It also requires a fundamental reorientation of perspective on technology. You have to go far beyond the relatively simple bar of functionality to the much more complex bar of invisibility.

In other words, technology should never be about technology; it should be about what it enables us to do.

To illustrate this approach, I often refer to my own unique experiences using technology. In 1999, long before I knew about Douglas Engelbart, I made the deliberate decision to leave the IT support field and took a serious pay cut to do so. At the time, I said that the reason that I was leaving was that I wanted to use technology, not be used by it. As a technology support person, you are a slave to the technology. Your existence is making sure it works, and your goals usually begin and end with the technology itself. As many of us know, getting away from this role is not as simple as walking away from it. Once people know you have a facility with computers, you automatically become tech support, whether that’s in your job description or not. Even as an instructional technologist, I’m constantly struggling to communicate to senior administrators that the primary role of my department is to support people, not technology.

My approach to computers has always been to look past them. I wanted to do things with them, not fiddle with them. The first BASIC program I wrote on the Apple ][+ was a routine that would resolve combat using the Dungeons and Dragons system. I was most interested in simplifying a real world (sort of) issue using the computer, rather than how to program. My approach to photography is similar. I want the camera to disappear so that I can focus on the image, which is a challenge. As I like to say, it is only when the technology becomes invisible that true creativity can take place. My fixation with ends over means represents a critical distinction in how I approach technology that differs from the vast majority of the world. Again, technology doesn’t fascinate me.  It’s what technology lets me (and those that I’m trying to help) do that truly fascinates me. I don’t care if the computer works. I care if the person is able to work, create, teach, etc. with it. Increasingly, I’ve found that the only way to achieve these lofty goals is through good technology design.

Every tool communicates to the user. A hammer says, “Beat something with me.” Even a two-year-old knows what to do with a pencil. He may not be able to write, but he can certainly scribble. These are natural interactions based on very functional design. Peter McWilliams illustrates this point through humor and reversing the simple to the complex in the now out-of-print McWilliams ][ Word Processer book.

The McWilliams book ironically demonstrates that when it comes to what we tend to think of as technological tools, too often the message sent by our modern tools is, “Be afraid, be very afraid” instead of “Imagine what I can help you do.” Bad technology design often gets in the way of this goal. Combining functionality with good design is a rare trait in the technology world. This is often what sets Apple apart. Over its history, what has set Apple apart has been its unique ability to bring good design to existing technologies and make them wildly successful. There were PCs before the Apple ][+, there were mp3 players before the iPod, and there were even tablets and smartphones before the iPhone and iPad. By adding the touch of design to existing technology they made it accessible. This is a lesson we should take to heart as we design classrooms, software interfaces, and other technology spaces on our campuses.

About eight years ago, I was given a report on “ubiquitous computing.” At the time, it was considered to be the coming thing, but I completely failed to grasp its significance. To me, “ubiquitous technology” was about technology everywhere and on-demand. What I failed to see was that “everywhere” means that technology is integrated into space designs, not just tacked on. In order to achieve this, technology design has to be invisible. It should not be conspicuous, but instead quietly augment what we are doing to the point where it makes a new world possible.

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand argues that even architects struggle with this concept. They build buildings as monuments to themselves instead of being concerned with the basic functionality of their use. He argues that the most effective buildings are the ones that can be infinitely reconfigured to meet the needs of their inhabitants. Technology should be viewed in exactly the same way. Rigid networks and computer security, rigid implementations of big technology are all inhibitors to the usage of the technology and the space in which it is placed. Classroom multimedia podiums are every bit as much as a monument to technologists as a Frank Gehry building is to architects.

The key is to bring together technical and non-technical people and help them understand the critical importance of good design in executing projects that involve technology. This is an ongoing challenge for my team and me. When I try to get this point across to the designers of our technology systems, they find it a hard concept to grasp. Most are not even designers in the traditional sense of the word. As a result, they are designing technology environments in purely functional terms and without regard to design. As a result, technology is, to the end user, ugly and inelegant. We will never achieve real technological adoption until we fix that.

In Part 2, I will continue this discussion with an in-depth look at the challenge of implementing technology at my institution, Houston Community College.


About Tom Haymes
Jack-of-many-trades, Tom’s interest in computers started in 1981 with an Apple ][+ at the same time he began developing a serious passion for photography. Keenly interested in government, Tom earned two Master’s degrees from Georgetown University, and has been teaching this subject in both a full- and part-time capacity for Houston Community College, Northwest since 2001. As the current Director of Technology, Tom is deeply involved in strategic planning and project management to accommodate a campus of over 20,000 students.

He has contributed to the EDUCAUSE Quarterly on the subject of cultural change in education, and has been involved with the NMC Horizon Project as a member of the Expert Panel since 2011. Currently, Tom is focused on conceptualizing and designing innovative learning environments for his institution such as Idea Spaces and the Teaching Innovation Lab. You can find Tom on Twitter (@hccgov), LinkedIn, Flickr, and his photography website.

Thumbnail CC BY 2.0 by Lee Nachitgal

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