Invisible Interface (round 2)

Not to be confused with my article from earlier this year.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we go about using our devices and computers. Times are changing and people don't see devices the same way they did ten or fifteen years ago.

When I was at school, computers were used almost exclusively to word process and look up bits of information on the web. During this time we became used to conventions with the interfaces presented to us. Now far be it from me to say that these interfaces were designed arbitrarily, they will no doubt have been subject to many rounds of user testing to create interfaces which were functional. I use the word functional as opposed to easy-to-use because some apps can still make it out into the world and result in a poor user experience.

As time has gone on, user interfaces have become more sleek and easier to use but I can't help feeling like our screens are still being locked into the the fixed element, expandable window world that we've grown accustomed to.

Before I move on the point of this rambling, allow me to ramble a little more and give you a bit of background to the inspiration behind this post.

A few weeks ago I got my hands on Rockmelt, a new browser which aims to "reinvent the browser". I don't want this to be a review so I'll not go into details of how it works too much, Dan has already written an insightful post on it. The basic idea behind the browser is it makes it easier for you to meld your browsing and social networking into one window. Once you've logged into your various social networks, you can send links to people, update your Facebook and Twitter status, keep in touch with your friends via Facebook chat (without actually being on the Facebook site) and so on.

If by this point you're thinking, "That's a lot of stuff for one measly window to handle", then you're already on the same train of thought as me so I'll continue and try to wrap this up with a coherent thought.

My main problem with this app is that it tries to do too much at once and I found it distracted me from the primary goal of a browser, to view the web. When my mind was being overloaded with all these features vying for my attention, I took a step back and began to think, not just about why these extra features are shown all the time, but why any of the features shown all the time?

When I'm browsing the web, I don't need the back button on show nor do I need to see the address bar. For that matter, I don't even need to see File, Edit, View etc. To access these menus, I'll need to move the mouse to the top of the page anyway so the interface could introduce these elements when the mouse comes within, say 100 pixels of the top of the screen.

Imagine if you could apply this type of hover to activate interface to all the apps you use right now. Imagine how much more screen real estate you would have to view photos online and writing a document in an uncluttered environment (you can actually do this already on Mac).

I think this way of working may take some getting used to but would allow us to be more efficient in an environment free of distractions.