Too often people want technology to be flashy. Designers get particularly excited about working on a new product because they get to flex their creative muscles. Developers are delighted by the opportunity to show off their latest tricks. However, those who do innovation really well know that functionality and usability always trumps flashiness. Truly great technology isn’t noticeable at all. It fits seamlessly with the way we live our lives or do business.
Astro Teller, the head of Google’s semi-secret skunkworks lab, Google X, believes invisibility is the pinnacle of technology. “When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.”
Teller says Google X is focused on looking at “how technology can be used to get technology out of the way,” he says in a keynote.
A perfect example of invisible technology is a car’s antilock braking system or ABS. When you put your foot on the brake you are actually interfacing with an intelligent piece of technology that determines how to to apply the brakes. But most people don’t notice the technology because it is seamless and requires little to no modifications to our existing habits and behaviours.
Xero cloud-based accounting software is is a great example of invisible software. Xero allows you to easily navigate your company’s financial position and drill down into details at any time, from anywhere in an intuitive way. Xero achieves this by looking at the big picture and how their technology will change or integrate with people’s current behaviour.
At Xero they they don’t code anything until they have a complete design solution. “Our design team invests time understanding and solving people problems, not technical problems,” user experience lead Philip Fierlinger says in a blog post. Technical problems are easy to solve, he says, but people problems mean looking at the workflow beyond the software as well as everything that has preceded and will flow on from the problem they’re solving. “That’s how we discover ways to change the game, to change people’s lives, to change the way people think and behave,” he says.
The key to understanding the bigger picture is recognising the problem your software is supposed to solve. To do this you need only adopt Toyota’s simple problem-solving technique to help you get to the core of a problem quickly. In this method you simply ask “Why?” five times. The answer to the first why will often prompt another “Why?” which will inevitably lead to another. Doing this will reveal problems or, depending on your perspective, opportunities to perfect your design before you start coding.
As stated on the Toyota website, “Even if this process is initially time consuming, identifying the root cause of a problem is important because it allows us to take appropriate countermeasures to prevent recurrence in the long-term.”
With software, understanding the problem you are trying to solve is paramount to your technology’s success. The same is true of understanding how your technology will compliment or change your user’s existing behaviour. By considering these things you are more likely to produce functional technology that is noticed for all the right reasons or, better still, not noticed at all.