Sometimes You Need to Show the Seams: Ubiquitous, Invisible and Seamless to Seamful Design

Mark Weiser gave us the concepts of ubiquitous and invisible computing.  Ubiquitous – available to us anytime and everywhere – and Invisible – we don’t see it and it doesn’t get in our way of completing our task at hand. Nowadays, we expect our mobile phones, wearables, home systems, etc… to be ubiquitous and invisible – work together and share information – seamlessly.

For the most part, seamless is a good thing… but there may be times that seamlessness could mean sacrificing the richness of the experience by not sharing an interaction that we might want to make when one system is chosen as primary and the others are reduced and simplified so that they conform to it.

Weiser was aware of this, too and gave the example of the poor seamful integration experience of early paint tools and text editors. He complained that seamless integration of such tools meant that the you were forced to use only one of them, or to crudely patch together components that were of one type or the other – that the “seams” were ugly.

Seamfully integrated technology maintains the unique characteristics of each “tool.” This let us brush some characters with the paint tool in some artful way, then use the text editor to ‘search and replace’ some of the brushstroked characters, and then paint over the result with color washes. Interaction would be seamless even though the features of each tool were apparent – showing their seams.

Seamful design is hard but the quality of experience can be improved if we let each tool ‘be itself’. Weiser suggests to the system designer that “the unit of design should be social people, in their environment, plus your device”.

In seamful design it is important to identify three key problems:

  • understanding which seams are important
  • presenting seams to your customers
  • designing interactions with seams

Giving the ability to play with the seams may ultimately lead to the more general concept of designing for appropriation.

Design for appropriation allows users to interact with seams individually, take advantage of the gaps and limitations in interactions and develop new patterns of behaviors that have not been considered during the initial design.