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Let's End Our Slavery to Screens

Paper didn’t disappear, and screens won’t either, but much of what we do today on our computers can be eliminated.

In 1974, The National Security Agency (NSA) started a top-secret internal newsletter. The publication, Cryptolog, had opinion pieces from their highly intelligent collectors, analysts and “cryppies” behind some of the country’s most well-kept secrets of code-cracking and encryption.

Recently, parts of Cryptolog have become declassified. The April 1983 issue from the agency that gets media attention today for digital privacy issues opened with an editorial rant about — believe it or not — the insanity of going paperless.

April 1983 cover of Cryptolog
April 1983 cover of Cryptolog

With their lives inundated with paper, the editorial team reminded Cryptolog readers that a paperless world could never come because people still care deeply about paper forms and memos, which is why “one can still hear serious debate about which brand of ‘white out’ does the best job.”

Flawless logic.

“The next time you wander through your favorite supply room,” they had warned, “take a close look at the tiers of forms arrayed there. Do you think they will ever go away?”

Today, our lives are inundated with screens instead of paper.

Your workplace isn’t any good if you don’t have at least two monitors on your desk. Your smartphone isn’t decent if it’s not at least five inches big. Your car is considered outdated if doesn’t have a touchscreen.

If trends continue, your wrist will soon be unfashionable if it doesn’t have a screen slapped to it. Perhaps even your face will be outdated without an interface projected into your vision.

This is not a good thing.

It’s distracting us from the world. Addictive services are making us less happy. Taking time away from creativity. Adults spend more than eight hours a day looking at a screen.

There’s an alternate path. One that doesn’t shun technology. An aspirational moment that embraces the power of computing while pushing it forward to do something better: A screenless world.

New Riders

This next generation of technological experiences may sound just as crazy today as a paperless world did to the NSA in 1983, but I believe we can make brilliant technology with no screens at all. Just like we reduced paper usage in the office, we can reduce screen time while providing faster, more efficient and more elegant experiences. Paper didn’t disappear, and screens won’t either, but much of what we do today on our computers can be eliminated.

Some of the brightest in tech have already begun working on it.

As I explain in my new book, “The Best Interface Is No Interface,” there are problems with our current approach, and ways we can make and live with technology in a more harmonious way. Here are three design principles we can use to build technologically advanced screenless products and services:

Embrace typical processes instead of screens

The design process for new technology often starts brilliantly — open-minded observations and conversations to know what problems to solve for customers — but then creativity slows with a rectangle on a white board … a representation of a screen.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

We start asking, “Where does the logo go?” “How should the navigation look?” Perhaps even, “How can we help this 82-year-old diabetic patient using this form field?”

Instead, by understanding the time, place and common course of actions, we can use that as our design constraint instead of the number of pixels on a screen.

For example, take a simple thing: Unlocking your car doors.

Trying to improve the car key, yet stuck in screen-based thinking, car companies have made apps that unlock the car doors. But drivers have to pull out a smartphone in a parking lot, unlock it, find the app, launch it, and tap and swipe on a series of buttons and menus just to unlock their car doors.

Alternatively, and more elegantly, Siemens and Mercedes took an alternate approach: They embraced the typical course of actions. When you grab the car door handle (a logical part of opening a car door), the car sends out a low frequency radio signal to see if your keys are in close proximity — say, in your pocket or in your purse — and if they are, the doors unlock instantaneously, without any additional work.

Leverage computers instead of serving them

At the Smithsonian they have an IBM computer: Deep Blue. It’s famous, of course, because in 1997 the supercomputer beat chess grand master Garry Kasparov. But today, Deep Blue’s processing power would be, well, pathetic. An ordinary computer today can crunch data more than 100 gigaflops faster than the one that had the ability to outthink the world’s greatest chess player.

Instead of asking people to serve computers through database-friendly form fields, passwords and error messages, we can leverage our powerful computers to do more on their own. We can take advantage of the sensors, radios and incredible processing capabilities of the incredible computers in our pockets.

There’s a door lock, Lockitron, that automatically opens your deadbolt when you walk up to your apartment or house door by using the Bluetooth connection from your smartphone. There’s an order delivery system, Square Order, which, behind the scenes, lets the restaurant know when you’ve left your home and when you’ll likely arrive by using the GPS on your phone. You can have your phone automatically text your partner through services like IFTTT that plug and play APIs.

Adapt to individuals

Imagine building a graphical user interface like decorating a wall. You put a picture here, hang a shelf there. You can move the objects around, perhaps even introduce a different photo for each person who walks into your home; but no matter what you do, your options are fairly limited. You have a given space and a given set of tools. The objects are fixed.

But what if there were no wall? What if we shifted the primary experience from the concrete to the abstract? What if instead of spending all that money and time on a static interface that will look outdated in a year, we spend the resources on a learning algorithm that can adapt a service in any way needed?

When things like machine learning and data science are lifted from the shackles of a static, small, pixel sandbox, we can use insights to change everything: Rapidly adjust for the needs of customers.

This essay is adapted from “The Best Interface Is No Interface: The Simple Path to Brilliant Technology” by Golden Krishna. Copyright © 2015. Used with permission of Pearson Education Inc. and New Riders.

Designer Golden Krishna has worked for innovation labs at Samsung and Zappos to imagine, design and build the future of technology. He began his career working at the world-renowned interaction design consultancy Cooper in San Francisco. Reach him @goldenkrishna.

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