Beneath the Interface Layer

Hello friends. Picture me in the text editor. I’ve been there a lot this week. I wrote a couple of articles over at Newfangled, one On Letting Go, which tells the story of how Newfangled is continuing to reinvent itself, and connects it back to a specific approach we’ve taken to interaction design for many years now, one which used to define us and now no longer does, and another called Scenes from the Marketing War Room, which is about what happens when someone gets angry about something you’ve written and throws shade in the comments of your article. You might be interested in reading those later. But right now, let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about the interface layer…

CB, February 4, 2016

Behold, the Interface Layer, the future of everything! Or so says Scott Belsky, of Behance fame. Have you heard of this? I hadn’t until recently, when several friends simultaneously sent me a link to an article written last year by Belsky announcing the advent of this most important, most glorious new thing. Several of them asked me to comment on it. And having read of our Interface Layer (may it be praised!), and found it to be utter nonsense, I shall now comment at length. You’ve been warned. And Scott, if you’re out there, don’t take this personally. But I do not think much of your “interface layer.”

So what is the “interface layer?” According to Belsky, it is “…a ‘closed’ user experience built on top of a wide open and hotly competitive ecosystem of services.” Which, quite honestly, doesn’t exactly sound new, does it? Sounds like Google Maps to me. So what’s the big deal?

Well, the “interface layer” is more than just proprietary software on top of shared data. Belsky opines:

“…it’s not just about great design, it is about the integration of the actions that make life easier and the commoditization of the services underneath. It is more than a layer, it is a shift in the economy that is led by designers rather than cable executives, tech titans, and logistics masterminds…The era ahead is all about simplification and aggregation. Atomization went too far, and now the pendulum is swinging back in the direction of one-stop solutions for integrated services. The ‘modern web services’ we’ve come to love and use in a piecemeal fashion will be stitched together and represented through superior user experiences. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, investor, or the leader of a product and services company, if you don’t play in the interface layer then you’ll be squeezed out of the consciousness of your customers.”

Ah, I see. Sounds like someone might be getting ready to stretch a little idea into one that can fill a book. But does the little idea even hold up? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that there are two suppositions on which this so-called “interface layer” relies that are just flat-out wrong.

First, that control is in the hands of designers, rather than the “cable executives, tech titans, and logistics masterminds.” I think what Belsky is trying to say there is the “suits.” That this will be a movement of design, not one of business relationships. That’s definitely wrong. I’ll get to that later.

Second, that the “interface layer” will be the seat of value, and the services beneath it will be commoditized. Boy, that’s even more wrong. In fact, I think that though several of Belsky’s observations are correct, they lead to the opposite conclusion: that the “interface layers” become the commodity, or at least quite beholden to the services beneath them. I’ll deal with that, too.

Belsky argues that there are enough individual examples of the “interface layer” at work already that it stands to reason that the “interface layer” paradigm will ultimately subsume everything else. Well, I’m not sure that the “interface layer” is even a coherent concept, but let’s examine his examples to see if this is truly the inexorable market force he says it is.

There are three major examples that Belsky mentions: (1) content aggregation apps, like Flipboard, (2) dining apps like OpenTable and Seamless, and (3) transportation apps like Uber. Flipboard is simply a visualization of content provided by other sources. OK. So far so good. OpenTable and Seamless allow you to make reservations and place orders, respectively, from participating restaurants. Oook, but that’s a bit of a different thing isn’t it? And Uber. How about Uber? Belsky cites them as the epitome of the “interface layer.” Hold on a second, because if all of three of these are supposed to be examples of the “interface layer,” then I don’t think it’s the same “interface layer” that Belsky introduced. Let me explain:

Yes, Flipboard is a good example of some what Belsky is talking about because it simply aggregates content and provides a unified experience for consuming it. That sounds kind of like an interface layer to me. But, in doing so, does it really commoditize the services underneath? Well, that depends. Mostly, on how long Flipboard lasts and how much its brand can overshadow the individual brands providing the content it collects. I’m not exactly bullish on magazines at the moment, but I have to wager that between the brand collective of Condé Naste’s properties and that of a single piece of aggregation software, Condé Naste is gonna last. Is it cool that I can read WIRED stories in Flipboard? I guess so. But that’s because I’m reading WIRED in Flipboard, not because Flipboard is employing journalists who keep me up to date on what’s happening in the world of technology. Flipboard is just one of many easy to install/easy to uninstall apps that combine the efforts of major organizations doing something much harder. Journalism might become a commodity, but not because of Flipboard. It seems to me the credit for that goes to advertising and social media.

So what about the restaurant apps? Well, with OpenTable and Seamless, it’s not that the interface is this separate thing from the supposedly commoditized services beneath it. In this case, they are a conduit between me and a specific service, making it possible for me to reach them more conveniently but also in a way that wouldn’t exist without the app. That’s a subtle but meaningful difference between this example and the Flipboard case. But unlike Flipboard and WIRED, the relationship between OpenTable and a restaurant is pretty darn symbiotic. If I want to make a reservation at the tapas place downtown, I can use OpenTable to do that without having to make any phone calls. But there isn’t going to be a point at which I’ll go to any restaurant that OpenTable offers me. The value of OpenTable is that it connects me with the specific restaurant where I want to dine. I and the restaurant have the leverage, just like I and WIRED do over Flipboard. And as long as anyone cares about reading good writing from a specific publication or eating good food from a specific restaurant, that will stay true.

And Uber? On that, Belsky writes:

“Uber is a great example of an Interface Layer company that is completely disrupting the traditional car dispatch industry by adding a better user experience on top.”

Good heavens. First of all, no. That is not really what’s happening. That is a gross over-simplification of what’s happening. Belsky’s idea of the guts-commoditizing “interface layer” might apply here if Uber was simply a nice piece of software on top of the same old taxi service. But that wouldn’t explain the controversy that has come with Uber, would it? That would make it easier for cab drivers to take more fares per hour and easier for passengers to find cabs when they need them. It wouldn’t ruin taxi drivers’ chances of making a living by creating an entirely new supply of unlicensed hobbyist and full-time drivers who are at the other end of this beautifully designed and easy to use app, and increase the risk and volatility for everyone involved because no matter how violent and rapey they are, they can either ride in or drive one of Uber’s fleet without the same legal protection they’d have in a taxi. Except, oh wait, that’s exactly what Uber is. It’s not commoditizing a service by wrapping it in software. It’s replacing a service with an irresponsibly inferior version and wrapping that in a shinier package.

It seems to me that none of these examples adequately represent Belsky’s “interface layer.” The sorts of data sharing and integrations that make them possible are, generally, a good thing and an incredibly important key to the future for just about any product or service. It certainly doesn’t bode well for companies that aren’t thinking about data accessibility and opportunities to cross-pollinate. On those particular conclusions, we can certainly agree.

But there are many examples that Belsky doesn’t cite that, I think, diminish the grandeur of the “interface layer” idea, if not directly contradict it. Like the above, these are examples that challenge the commoditization assumption, as well as the idea that design is the driver of success.

The best one that comes to mind are streaming music services. Isn’t Spotify just an “interface layer” for the music industry? Hasn’t it all but sealed the deal on the commoditization of recorded music? How many artists have said, on the record, that they have never and will never make money from digital plays, but that they see it as marketing to get people to buy concert tickets and merchandise? Is this a good thing? Well, it depends upon for whom you’re asking. Is it good for record companies? Absolutely. They collect the most money on digital plays, not the artists. (Yes, sales have dropped as compared to when sales meant copies of physical media, but there are digital revenues, and the record companies get the lion’s share.) Is it good for artists? Not when compared to the way things used to be. But, it’s the way things are now, and so if an artist considers recorded music a form of marketing, then she couldn’t ask for a much better one. So maybe it is good for the artists after all. Is it good for the consumer? Maybe. On the one hand, music has never been so inexpensive. On the other, we have less control over access than we think. Part of the reason Rdio died was its catalog volatility. All of us design lovers — we who bet on the influence of what Belsky calls “the most important leaders of this new business” — cast our lots on Rdio only to learn that no, the “interface layer” that wins is not necessarily the one that gives a rip about good design. What really matters is exactly what Belsky says no longer does: business relationships and data logistics! If Rdio had been better at dealmaking, they might have survived. Time and again, I asked friends who preferred Spotify why on Earth they chose to have an aesthetic experience in such an aesthetically nightmarish “interface layer.” And they always had a good answer: Spotify has more music. That doesn’t describe a scenario where what is under the interface layer is commoditized. That describes a scenario where what is under the interface layer has the appropriate amount of leverage, and the interface layer is quickly replaceable when that leverage is leveraged. Did all those Rdio subscribers suddenly go without streaming music? No. Five minutes later, they had Spotify or Google Music accounts. And, alas, it doesn’t describe a scenario in which design wins. Spotify has certainly improved its design and user experience, but it’s still not as good as Rdio was.

Later in his article, Belsky summarizes:

  • “The success or failure of a product is less about the technology and more the user’s experience of the technology.
  • Increasingly, the greatest competitive advantage will be ease (and speed) of use
  • The quest to atomize services and user experiences helped usher in an era of simple design and logical defaults. These same principles will now be used to aggregate and integrate services into common interfaces.”

Of his first point, I want to say, Ehhhhh… sometimes, but really, no, not that often. It’s often about access, which is just another word for money. See Spotify, Vizio TVs, Android phones, etc. etc. etc.

Of the second, yeah, probably so.

Of the third, riiiight which, as far as I can tell, kind of undermines the whole point about the preeminence of design in the era of the interface layer (I love how era basically means five years now, but whatever). Belsky is right that atomization — and, really, a whole host of other factors, like mobile device proliferation, increased sophistication of off-the-shelf web design and development tools, commoditization of websites, etc. — has, much to the dismay of designers everywhere, created the impression that design is little more than configuration. In other words, when someone wants to make a website, “design” is often simply a process of choosing a solution (e.g. Wordpress or Squarespace) and then choosing one of its themes and going through a series of screens to configure whatever options are available — things like typography, colors, and that sort of thing. This is true just as often at the enterprise level as it is on the individual level. Seriously. What’s happening to design is like if I were to purchase a prefab home and choose from a range of floor options for my kitchen and think I was doing architecture. Now, that being said, there’s obviously still plenty of real, honest-to-goodness design being done. But the market forces that Belsky wants to draw upon in order to support this “interface layer” concept are hollowing out the guts of design with a capital D and leaving a thin, candy shell of box-checking and button-clicking. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the outer layer — Belsky’s “interface layer” — is made possible by the sophistication and complexity of the under layer. The information logistics made possible by databases talking to each other and sharing bits back and forth. That is design work, to be sure, but it’s not the sort of design that Belsky is talking about. It’s information design. It’s programming. It’s lines of code and APIs.

In pursuit of a grand idea, Belsky has collapsed the market into two levels: software, and the rabble beneath it. But he’s leaving out a whole host of other players that diversify the technological strata considerably, like hardware, internet infrastructure, entertainment — all of which have their own rules, regulations, and worldviews — and a very thick mid-layer of database programming which makes any connections between any of these layers possible. By comparison, his “interface layer” looks little more than that candy coating I mentioned.

That is, if it’s to be understood as more than just a clever metaphor. Because if that’s all the “interface layer” is, we could have a little fun with that. Isn’t Apple just an interface layer for developers? Or Amazon, an interface layer for… everything? Facebook, an interface layer for people! Isn’t every web browser the interface layer for the web and every operating system the interface layer for the internet? Isn’t that why the big software players constantly widen their scope? Because they believe that the bigger their interface layer, the more chance it has of finding some way to make money other than advertising?

A number of years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear some tech pundit claim that Second Life — a virtual “world” built on the internet — was going absorb so much attention that it would become more important to people than the real world. One only had to experience its Lawnmower Man-esque fidelity once to see how absurd a claim that was. But, say it had looked better, or had been used for more than just a “place” that IBM employees could meet looking like Vikings or Pandas or pole dancers, or wasn’t the sort of place an innocent kid could materialize for the first time only to be inundated by hundreds of disembodied, flying, pixellated penises? People still would have needed to eat. People still would have been made of material and made for a material world. Belsky misjudges the interface layer, assuming that, though many many never go deeper than its surface, there’s nothing of value beneath it. But he couldn’t be more wrong. Beneath it is exactly where the value is.

Heavy Rotation: Next week, my wife and I are flying up to New York to see Hamilton. So, for the past few weeks, Hamilton has been in pretty heavy rotation and I’ve been pushing it pretty hard at the office and winning converts left and right. Musical theater is a lot like religion for the uninitiated   people assume they know what it is and that they don’t like it. Having been a theater (and musical theater) kid, I realize I’m biased, but even this show surprised me. I certainly don’t love every show that’s ever been done on Broadway (in fact, I only really know a very few of them), but Hamilton is incredibly unique. If, somehow, you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s the story of Alexander Hamilton told in two hours of song, rap, an incredible range of musical genre, and a cast made up almost entirely of people of color. American history sometimes has the same problem musicals do; we assume we already know it. But I guarantee you will learn something you didn’t know about the American revolution and the founding of this country by listening to this show. Just the other day, I was telling a friend about the album and the show and she said, “Oh, Alexander Hamilton, the President?” No, Hamilton was never President. And that’s an easy one. Did you know that both he and his son died in duels? Did you know that he had a friend named Hercules Mulligan, a tailor’s apprentice who used his position to spy on the British? Did you know that his wife, Eliza, lived another 50 years after his death, rehabilitating his reputation, fundraising for the Washington Monument, and founding the first private orphanage in New York? Anyway, check it out.

Recent Tabs: A Choose Your Own Adventure story in tweets. The Amiga Graphics Archive. On evolving the Google identity. Not to self: Learn how face looks, control it when backpfeifengesicht kicks in. Hardcore cookieing — Been there, bro. Been there. A couple of robots will build a pavilion in London this May. Rethinking Design for Safety. The Grand Challenges of Archaeology. Please spend the majority of your Friday using this Simpsons screengrab search engine.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 4, 2016,   In Essays

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