I think that younger audience is part of a wave of newer startups that sees past mundane swipes and taps and aims for more elegant experiences.
— Golden Krishna
James Haliburton: Hey Golden!
Golden Krishna: Great to be discussing design with Topp.
JH: Terrific to connect with you. You've been on a great design and career journey it seems.
GK: Yes, since the last time we met, there's been a lot going on.
JH: What are you up to currently?
GK: I'm working at Zappos Labs. It's an R&D group for Zappos. The online retailer known for customer service has been doing fantastic, and started this group to look at the future of the company, and to interject innovative experiments. I just wrapped up a project two weeks ago in which we built an RFID checkout lane.
JH: That sounds amazing. Did you get to build it in a real store?
GK: Yes. Zappos was the title sponsor of a very large race -- the third largest in the world -- here in San Francisco called Bay to Breakers. The day before the race, at the Expo, about 70,000 participants come to pick up their race number, and since we're the title sponsor, they then are routed through our store. We don't usually have physical retail spaces, but this is part of an ongoing series of pop ups we're doing across the country. At Bay to Breakers, with so many people coming through our store, historically line lengths have been very long, and so I and a handful of others worked on an RFID checkout lane. We had 17,000 items, and tagged the ones actively on the floor. When it came time to checkout, it wasn't the typical screen-heavy checkout lane, instead customers stood on a powerful mat that could scan 700 items per second. The items appeared on a screen, they hit confirm on an iPad, and then swiped their card. Still some screen, but far less screen.
JH: Can you share any insights about the experience? Did everything run smoothly?
GK: There were certainly some hiccups at first. One woman walked through our lane and it didn't pick up an item, we spent a few minutes trying to fix the machine and then realized it was human error: we never tagged that item, so the RFID reader never read the item. Ha.
JH: Are you always actively trying to minimize the amount of screens in your projects?
JH: Do you find that it's get easier to avoid screen based experiences now?
GK: There's a lot of technology available for much cheaper. The RFID tags, for instance, used to cost about $3/tag, and are now about $0.11/tag and sensors are far cheaper too but the battle isn't really any easier.
JH: Are people better at using it? Are designers adapting to the new tools available to them?
GK: I just feel more ready for battling for the ideas, having spent so much time thinking about these kinds of experiences. I definitely feel like customers are far more open minded about screenless ideas today than they were just a few years ago. I feel as though we've collectively begun to understand that we spend too much time staring down at our phones and other screens.
JH: And you've also had a book published recently?
GK: Besides what I'm doing at Zappos, the other big thing happening is the release of my book, "The Best Interface is No Interface". It was an enormous multi-year project, probably the most difficult and most rewarding thing I've done in a long time.
JH: Congratulations. Who is the main audience for this book?
GK: The primary audience for the book is designers, but I strive to write about design in a way that is approachable for anyone. And by that I don't just mean developers, engineers, data scientists… I mean anyone who has an interest in technology and where we're headed. The goal of the book was to be entertaining and inspiring. Even if you don't agree with the message of the book -- to reduce our screen time -- I hope that readers will enjoy the text. Right now it has 14 straight 5 star reviews on Amazon in the United States, so that's good, and I hope it continues to be appealing to more and more.
JH: Have you seen any really great screenless interfaces recently?
GK: Yes. I think we're at a nice tipping point. When I go and do my lectures about the topic, there are usually two groups of people that find what I'm saying very appealing.
The seniors - the ones that never understood why their children are so obsessed with their phones. And the young - the ones that grew up seeing their parents obsessed with their phones. And I think that younger audience is part of a wave of newer startups that sees past mundane swipes and taps and aims for more elegant experiences. The website Product Hunt, which at one point featured my book, has started a collection of Invisible Apps, startups that are thinking beyond typical interactions.
One of them that I think is fascinating is called Ginger.io. It's an app that works well while your phone just sits in your pocket. It's for people who have mental health issues, and the app delivers information to their loved ones and mental health professional. The information it passes on are basic things related to your smartphone's data set. Things like: did you leave the house today? Or, have you not called or messaged anyone in awhile? Small triggers that require no form fields that are indicators that someone who suffers from something like depression, might be triggers about a potential condition.
GK: In the case of mental health, answering questions to rank yourself 1-10 on a scale is really difficult and somewhat bizarre, it feels more like a database question rather than a human one.
JH: We've had a big health and design focus here at Topp recently. That definitely reflects our view as well.
GK: That's fascinating. There are a lot of great opportunities in the health space. And meaningful ones too.
JH: Do you think that we'll start to see fewer screens in products or will we just see additional screenless products pop up in parallel?
GK: It'll be parallel. Like hybrid cars, transition periods happen in middle states. Not all screens are going away, certainly, but there are a good number of tasks and products that can embrace this kind of thinking. And I think we'll see more and more companies embrace these kinds of invisible, or background smarts, rather than produce more drop downs and one-off apps.
Abraham Lincoln once said “the best way to predict the future is to make it”… it's up to us to make that kind of future happen.
JH: Are there any good examples of new screenless output patterns?
GK: Really good question. The output is really the deliverable. The result. It's not a typical "Success!" message that we're used to producing.
There's an adventurous startup called Even that was recently featured in The New York Times Magazine. Hourly and shift workers have a lot of anxiety and stress about unpredictable wages. It makes it hard to save for the future, or even know what they can spend this week. So Even plugs into your checking account, monitors your income, and then provides even paychecks to you. If you make more than they predict, they save it automatically for you, and distribute it to the times when you make less. It's very ambitious, but the output here is the result. The paycheck. What's the output of an automatically opening sliding door? The door is open. The output is the desired outcome. It feels weird at first, but is really nice when it delivers.
JH: Have you found any natural boundaries to the no interface mantra?
GK: Yes. Entertainment. Writing. Reading.
It's certainly possible to solve these with no interface, but sometimes you don't want to. You want to see a movie with your favorite actor. You want to read Buzzfeed.
JH: Makes sense. Would you say the boundaries are more around traditional media and content rather than the interaction specifically? Communication vs interaction.
GK: If I could encapsulate those things I would say you don't want to eliminate the things people love to do. If someone loves cooking, for example, we wouldn't want that person to have a robot that cooks for them.
The point of No Interface is to eliminate burdens. Not to eliminate things people love to do.
JH: You must still have some good examples of screen-based interfaces. What are some really good apps or interfaces today? Why?
GK: As a creative, one of my mantras is ABC - Always Be Capturing. Good ideas can disappear, and if someone says something interesting in a meeting, it should be captured or it may forever be forgotten.
So I actually have a Microsoft Surface that I use almost exclusively for Microsoft One Note. It's a great program because I can just sketch my ideas and freehand take notes. There isn't really much structure to the program, so it lets you do what you want to do.
I would love for that to be something besides a screen, but for now, I will deal with our technological constraints.
JH: Microsoft Surface is good example of advancement in creative tools, and it seems like many of those combine physical and digital interactions. What do you think about the intersection of UI and NoUI?
GK: I hope that we'll end up at this point in which there's no more UI than we need; that we reduce and eliminate everything but the primary thing we need to do. And if that truly requires a UI, then it's there, but hopefully we can find ways to eliminate interfaces in many places where they exist today.
I was chatting with some really smart folks at Netflix who were intrigued by the idea. At first, I was surprised since they are clearly making things for screens, but they were fascinated by the reduction, and I think that is a really great way to look at this.
JH: I suppose for Netflix, reducing UI means putting more focus on their key value - the video content.
GK: Yeah, I think that's the outlook for Netflix, and honestly, should be for everyone.
JH: Do you think there will always be seamfullness in these intersections? Or will moving between them become more and more natural.
GK: I hope it's natural, but it won't be at first. At first, it will be awkward. We will make mistakes. But there are other seamless examples in our everyday lives today. I mentioned automatic doors. There are, of course, automatically shifting cars, which feel seamless. Seamless is very hard initially, but when it's done right, it feels like there could be no better solution.
JH: Automatic shifting is like magic here in Sweden where most people drive standard. But anyone who drives an automatic seems to love it immediately.
GK: Driving is one of the things that I think taps into what I was describing earlier: if you love it, don't eliminate it. In the United States, it's something around 96% of new cars sold that are automatic. But I think in Europe there's a love for driving that doesn't exist here.
JH: Your background is visual design. Do you think that to create a great No Interface experience, it's helpful to have that deep UI understanding to react against?
GK: Yes. It's funny, you have to know your enemy in order to defeat it. If you understand why screen elements are used in the way they are used -- if you understand the color, the composition, the purpose -- I think you can more easily find ways and means of reduction and elegance in the overall experience. By that I don't mean to imply a particular style -- flat, as we call it today -- I mean a reduction in work to be done by the customer. A reduction in choice and clutter of buttons and interactions.
JH: We often have clients come in saying that they want a particular feature or design pattern in an experience. The first thing we do is try to extract what the underlying value or goal is that they want from that feature. When we identify those motivations the whole world of design opens up. It sounds familiar.
GK: Yes. That sounds like the correct approach. Understanding your client's motivations, your customer's motivations, the metrics that determine success…those are the edges of your sandbox for ideation and design. Not features.
“UX is about joy, elation…solving problems for your customers.
JH: We all work in the field of user experience - How would you describe the difference between UI and UX?
GK: Unfortunately, there's been a trend by hiring managers in the United States -- and I've seen it globally as well -- to hire a "UI/UX" designer. I don't like acronyms and in this case they are a little silly. But the unfortunate outcome is that when you define a role in that way, it alters their output.
UI is about buttons, type, color…creating and composing the elements you see on a screen.
UX is about joy, elation…solving problems for your customers.
When you confuse the two roles, you end up making it someone's job to solve problems with screens. When that's how they're evaluated that's not good.
JH: Just 3 more questions...
Question one. What's your dream design project? (Aside from what you're currently up to!)
GK: For me, it's all about the team. It doesn't really matter what the domain -- things like healthcare and education feel great -- but if you have the right people in the room, you can do wonderful things.
JH: And your dream team is?
GK: I love a mix. Designers, developers, …I really like working with people who get data. Data scientists who can help us create great experiences.
JH: Question 2. What are young designers doing now that you haven't seen before?
GK: When I was at Samsung I worked alongside some amazing industrial designers and mechanical engineers who understood sensor technology and what we could do with it…I loved that. I see young designers thinking more about computers as machines rather than just screens, and I love that. In some design schools, there are rudimentary tools like Arduino that are being played around with on top of traditional courses like poster design…that's great. Understanding the tools as just a means to what you want. And there are so many ways to utilize computers today. I'm happy to see students be advent ours in that way.
JH: Last question. What fields other than design are you most inspired by?
GK: I'm always intrigued by anything that delivers a great experience. Whether that's a song on the radio that resonates with millions, or a roller coaster ride, when someone nails an experience I love to study it and try to understand why it's so intriguing.
JH: Thanks so much, Golden. It was truly a pleasure.
GK: Thanks James! Flattered to be the first Topp interview!
Check out Golden Krishna's book, The Best Interface is No Interface.