When to show the OS

The messaging is always the same…

“Anything is possible.”
“It’s as easy as saying, Alexa, find me a job.”
“Connecting your world with the touch of a button.”

While consumer brands have used the “easy as 1, 2, 3” angle for decades, tech platforms in the last 15 years have extended that to nearly every aspect of daily life.

Their work has largely become about hiding the operating system, masking the actual work it takes to create and interact with both the physical and digital world - this is the mantra of tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google, and by extension the startups that dream of becoming them.

    Apple describing the possibilities of augmented reality on their home page

  Apple describing the possibilities of augmented reality on their home page

But imagining the world is easy, without difficulty or pain, isn’t the same thing as it actually being easy...no matter how much we optimize for a painless experience.

As Olia Lialina notes in an essay on the Turing Complete User, and again in examining Rich User Experience, UX and Desktopization of War…optimizing for invisibility may make it easy for companies to market products, but there’s also something essentially lost by re-framing it that way.

“We are giving up our last rights and freedoms for “experiences,” for the questionable comfort of “natural interaction.” But there is no natural interaction, and there are no invisible computers, there only hidden ones.”

Hiding code and operational structure may make sense for ease of use when you’re booking a hotel or looking for a meetup group in a new city, but modern design optimization often fails to reveal important opportunities or barriers that require an individual decision by the end user.

Lialina notes the example of a user experience designer reducing cognitive load and ethical/moral considerations for a drone operator in an air conditioned trailer in the New Mexico desert pressing buttons to kill someone halfway across the world.

“Augmented Reality shouldn’t become Virtual Reality. On a technical and conceptual level, interaction designers usually follow this rule, but when it comes to gun sights it must become an ethical issue instead."
Experience designers should not provide experiences for gun sights. There should be no user illusion and no illusion of being a user created for military operations.”

This is something that both Lialina and Zeynep Tufekci point out on a regular basis - that we need to arrive with a basic set of questions, considerations, and ethics when we design and operationalize digital platforms and experiences.

The unintended consequences of drone strikes and Russian covert ops hacking into and socially engineering U.S. elections are only two examples of things that can’t be solved by optimizing design. These problems require real scientists, engineers, sociologists, and ethicists to make the tradeoffs visible.

That’s one of the most important reasons to show the OS: end users, customers, clients, and audiences should all have at least enough access to the underlying structure to know that there is a balance, and that choices are being made.

And, refusing to show the OS also destroys something we all love about the digital world: that edgelessness, freedom, and possibility that designer Frank Chimero described in his piece on the essential quality of the web back in 2015.

Perhaps instead of asking what we should hide, creatives and entrepreneurs of all kinds need to focus more on the opposite question…

What should we be making visible in the world?