UIEtips: Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen

Jared Spool

May 14th, 2009

For years my kids, when assigned the chore of cleaning out the refrigerator, exhibited a consistent idiosyncratic behavior. They’d take a sniff of a far-too-mature item, make a face, then turn to me and insist, “Smell this. It’s gross!” My experience and wisdom had granted me the knowledge to know that I didn’t have to smell it. From just the expression on their face, I could discern everything I needed to know about their experience.

It’s the same thing that happens when my friends send me a link saying, “You should really see this. The site is awful!” I don’t really need to see any more really awful sites.

What I’m very interested in are really great sites — sites that deliver fabulous experiences. However my friends don’t send me these. That’s because when they are absorbed in a great experience, the site itself disappears.

In today’s article, Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen, I talk about how the goal of a designer is to make their site disappear. Of course, this has ramifications, but our ultimate goal is to focus the user on their own experience, not on our design elements. 

After you’ve read the article, let me know what you’ve been doing to make your designs more invisible. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Making your design invisible is just one of the many insights I’ll be revealing in our upcoming UIE Roadshow, Secrets Behind Designing Great User Experiences. We’re bringing this critically acclaimed full-day workshop to Denver, Seattle, and Washington DC in June. Sign up by June 5 with promotion code SHOW09 and get $75 off the individual price.

13 Responses to “UIEtips: Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen”

  1. sparkybarkalot Says:

    I use Netflix many times a month and there is a significant issue with the design of the home page. The issue is so glaring that any invisibility of the design elsewhere almost becomes moot.

    If you are a paying customer, subscribed to their service and paying them your hard-earned cash every month and you visit the Netflix home page, you are told to wait in line behind the POTENTIAL customers: you must click on a button to get to the login page! Incredible! Is it really so hard to be welcoming to your users… your paying customers… by putting a TWO FIELD login form on the home page. Astounding.

    Imagine walking into a Starbucks and a greeter at the door aks you if you’re a regular customer. If your answer is yes you’re asked “please kindly exit the building and come in through the back door… this door is for new customers only”.

    A home page that simply serves as a marketing tool, instead of serving your paying customers is a poor home page indeed.

  2. Jared Spool Says:

    That’s interesting Doug, because when I and practically every user in our studies visit the site, it usually goes straight to their member page.

    I’m guessing you might have cookies turned off, are not checking the “remember me” button, or signing out at the end of your sessions. These would force you to have the experience you’re describing.

    Otherwise, I’d talk with the great folks at Netflix customer support. I’m betting they can help you work through this unusual behavior.


  3. Dana Chisnell Says:

    I love buying music on iTunes.

    And I’ll bet Apple loves me going there, too. Because whenever I go there with even just the slightest interest in a piece of music, I inevitably come away having spent some serious money. And it’s because the experience is wonderful.

    EXCEPT when they change the license agreement. When Apple changes the license agreement (which seems to happen more frequently as time goes on), it interrupts the purchase process, makes me click something that I don’t read anyway, and then tells me that I should try my purchase again. It’s as if their legal requirement is a mistake I made. (‘Please check the number and dial again.’) Try my purchase again?

    It is fascinating to me that an otherwise great experience can have a burp like the license agreement interrupt that suddenly makes me aware of how I’m interacting with the site — rather than enjoying a new song to play to inspire me while I work. It’s the water dripping on my head from the air conditioning vent in the ceiling. Surprising, annoying, disruptive, and leaves me cleaning up the mess.

    On another musical note, I think one of the superlative experiences on the Web is Pandora. Wow, is that part of my daily life. I even have the app on my iPhone.

  4. sorin Says:

    I totally agree with Jared and I guess intuition plays a big role in the user’s experience. He’s guided by his intuition and that’s why it feels natural when good design takes place 🙂

    I cannot say that Netflix’s website is a part of this experience. I don’t find it that good.

    I will be shooting from the hips right now 🙂 :
    – Too much red, it hurts my eyes;
    – The captcha on the right is too big, looks like it’s one the most important elements on the page giving the size and the strategic position of it;
    – “Member Sing In” , too many words and not that intuitive. Why not just “Login ” ?
    – The menu links has different colors on :hover and underlined too? Any reason for that? As far as I know the UI is just a tool for emphasizing the content;
    – The use of Ajax is not that great, cause for example the tooltips are showing with a kind of big delay, people are going to lose this feature;

    Anyway, I just wanted to point this up …

    Thanks Jared for the amazing articles that you’re bringing us.

  5. Jared Spool Says:


    Are you a avid Netflix customer? If you’re not, then you aren’t the audience I’m talking about.

    Thanks for the thoughts.


  6. DK Says:

    Hi Jared,

    Thanks for this post, and also for the great presentation at Refresh Seattle recently. You inspired me to go back to a book I hadn’t opened for years, Designing Business by Clement Mok. The copyright date on my book is 1996. Still, I couldn’t help but think about a page in it after hearing your talk. In the chapter on interactivity design, there’s this graph of “richness” vs. “interactivity.” It’s from a 1991 Harvard Business School report , and the idea is to plot different media experiences to measure their “interactiveness.” Stuff like e-mail, faxes, and answering machines go in the thin, passive experience quadrant. Things like karaoke and video games go up in the rich, interactive quadrant. If they had to do it again, they’d probably have mobile interfaces way up high in that section, too.

    As a designer, I’m curious what you think are some characteristics of a great online experience. Does more interactivity mean better design? And how do you know when a site disappears?


  7. Jay Harlow Says:

    Ah, the old crystal goblet rears its invisible head again. This is a lesson learned long ago in architecture, in industrial design, and in graphic design. UX still has yet to learn it: Design cannot be invisible, and should never, ever try to be such.

    Pleasure and delight are not equivalent with a lack of frustration. True delight emerges when an experience is noticeably pleasurable. Yes, an “experience” has a functional component, but it takes a visual form. That form cannot be separated, relegated, or rendered invisible. Indeed, they are one.

    Stephen Anderson makes the case eloquently here: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy/

  8. Mike Madaio Says:

    @Jay Harlow — The “In Defense of Eye Candy” article you posted does not argue against Jared’s points at all — in fact it seems to compliment them. NetFlix, for example, uses aesthetically pleasing designs to help their design fade away and allow users to focus more on the content and experience. If these designs were less aesthetically pleasing, the user might be more inclined to notice how spartan or unappealing they were.

    At the same time, I do believe there are some examples where design that disrupts the user’s process (and is therefore noticeable) is actually desirable and more persuasive. For example, if a customer visits a website to buy printer paper, disrupting them with an offer to upgrade their printer may be profitable, even if it only works on a small percentage of users. (Of course if you make it too hard to get around the offer to the paper, that is perhaps a bigger problem.)

  9. Gary Franceschini Says:

    Late to the party, but I wanted to add one quick comment.

    I’ve just come from a meeting where results of our latest user survey were discussed. The three things users most wanted from our online service had *nothing* to do with our online service. It was all about them. We are simply a tool they use to get where they want to be.

    For me, that’s a strong argument for attempting to render the design invisible. I accept it’s an idealistic desire, and that complete invisibility might be impossible, but it’s the reach for the goal that’s important here.


  10. Jay Harlow Says:

    @Mike Madaio, my point isn’t that aesthetics should “interrupt” an experience. Rather, they are an integral part of the experience. If you asked people what they think of the Netflix site, I’d bet half of them would say “it’s easy to use,” and another half would say “it looks nice.” They are the same answer.

    There is no transparent goblet — you cannot separate form from content. Form IS content. That is Stephen Anderson’s point. A button is not a button is not a button.

    My point is an extension of that reasoning: if a designer attempts to design transparency, she will fail. Aesthetics are integral to positive experience, and a positive experience cannot exist without being noticed.

  11. Jared Spool Says:


    If you asked people what they think of the Netflix site, I’d bet half of them would say “it’s easy to use,” and another half would say “it looks nice.” They are the same answer.

    I have asked them. They don’t say “it looks nice.” They don’t mention the looks at all.

    They only talk about the value they derive from the service altogether.


  12. Jay Harlow Says:

    @Jared, fair enough!

    However, since my last post, I’ve actually become a Netflix customer. After using the Netflix site, I now wonder if perhaps users don’t mention the site’s visual affordances simply because those affordances are not particularly noteworthy. The site seems to be designed primarily to stay out of the way, to your original point.

    Yet Apple demonstrates time and time again how noticeable design can enhance an experience, engender delight, or even inspire passion — for a product. Netflix is a wonderfully satisfying service. However, at its best, it doesn’t elicit the delight that the glowing, breathing light on my MacBook does, or the elastic bounce of an iPhone swipe.

    As successful as Netflix is, I wonder how much further they might go by following that lead.

  13. Sum Says:

    @Jay Harlow
    I totally agree: A transparent design (in terms of usability) won’t get in the way, but an exceptional design will make the ride extra enjoyable and therefore the user will notice!

    It is the same analogy with a good car with poor aesthetics vs an equally good car, but with really great aesthetics, in its interior and exterior too. Both cars will take you where you want, but you will only love the second one.

    There is also the case of revolutionary design (which is user-friendly too). Users will notice for sure and sometimes this might be easier to achieve than take the best mainstream style and try to make it better. In this case though, there are many traps where most fall in.

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