Great Design Is Invisible

By Karen Cronin | Thursday, August 20, 2015 | No Comments

At Cronin Creative, we love our tagline – Clarity By Design – because it goes straight to the heart of our branding philosophy. So when I recently noticed an article entitled “Great Design is Invisible,” I had to check it out, and I’m glad I did. The insightful piece, written by Michael Wong (aka Mizko) for his blog (, explores the meticulously thought out design innovations behind Airbnb, Uber, Nest, and Disney World. It’s the innovative design operating in the background that makes these companies and their products so easy to use, so fun to interact with, and so phenomenally successful.

The most effective branding is similarly rooted in that kind of design. While never drawing attention to itself, great design presents the end user with a seamless-and-compelling experience while delivering a highly distilled, clear and compelling message. Whether it’s a product, a company, or an overall branding project, the goal is, as Wong says, “to create an experience which is so great that the design goes unnoticed.” In other words, Clarity By Design. Wong’s article is reprinted below.

Great Design is Invisible
By Michael Wong

Airbnb, Disney World, Uber and Nest. They are all phenomenal products, which together are worth over $135 billion! Not only do their services deliver great value, their experiences are so well thought out and executed that their strategy goes unnoticed. In other words, their user experiences are invisible.

“A good designer can organise chaos. A great designer can eliminate chaos.”

When designing the experience and interactions of a product, the most common question I ask myself is, “What is the least amount of work a user has to do, to achieve their desired outcome?”

Who actually enjoys fiddling around with dropdown menus, input forms and buttons? Sometimes as designers, we can be distracted by unnecessary noise when thinking through an experience. We bring emphasis to ‘beautifully designed forms’ because it’s the easier way out. One method I found quite effective is to think of the end goal and work backwards. This allows you to think beyond UI elements and really focus on what matters.

“Design is only obvious in retrospective”

As designers it is important for us to think more holistically about a product and its experience. Polishing pixels is important but an experience which is so great that the design goes unnoticed is even better.

Jared Spool, an expert on the subjects of usability and design explains how Netflix sent out a survey asking their users what they liked best about their service. Customers replied with “Great selection of movies, recommendation tool was helpful and the overall service was great. However one thing they didn’t mention was the site was super functional, intuitive and well designed.

Jared Spool follows up with:

“While all these things are what the designers at Netflix work hard on every day, they go unmentioned by their customers… It’s not because these aspects aren’t important. It’s because the designers have done their job really well: they’ve made them invisible.”


  1. AirbnbDesign is more than gorgeous pixels

When booking a place on Airbnb, the real value is when the host wants to accommodate the guest who contacted them. In retrospect, Airbnb could have thousands of ‘available’ places to stay at but if no hosts wants to accommodate you — you’ll have a negative experience.

So what does Airbnb do to fast track you to the real value?

It’s invisible. Searching on Airbnb is quite simple and the forms are very minimal. When you make a search on Airbnb, behind the scenes they use machine learning to detect host preferences.

Without going too in depth, what this means is that they have created a machine learning model that learns host behaviours and preferences for accommodation requests. With this understanding, they can optimise a ‘guest’ search results with ‘hosts’ that are more likely to accept your request as a priority. This makes your experience on Airbnb more meaningful as you’re very likely to receive a quick and successful response from a host.

I am yet to experience an Airbnb host who does not respond to me.

  1. Disney WorldA frictionless, magical experience

Disney World invested $1billion on a magical wristband. Why? because it gives them the opportunity to create a frictionless, magical experience through invisible design.

It all begins when you book your ticket online and pick your favourite rides. Behind the scenes, they capture everything from you. With this data they are able to crunch your preferences then provide you a calculated itinerary that keeps you on route and stops you from zig zagging back and forth across the park.

This invisible experience also flows into your restaurant booking. When you make the reservation the restaurant host will already know your name. In fact, you can sit anywhere and your food will magically make its way to you! How? The restaurant is fitted out with advanced sensors which open up a whole new world of opportunities for them.

With Disney World knowing where you’re located in their magical theme park, this also opens up a ton of new opportunities to deliver an ever greater experience. Just imagine your children’s favourite characters come to them instead of them have weaving through the swarm of people.

As you can see, great design brings great experiences.

From a business standpoint, being able to optimise every itinerary will allow people to explore more of the park’s top attractions. When visitors spend less time in lines, they can do more and ultimately spend more!

  1. UberDisrupting an entire industry with 1 screen

Taxis on-demand.

Who ever thought one screen could disrupt an entire industry?

Waving down a taxi before the Uber days was a nightmare. Stranded on the busy streets on a cold winters morning at 4am in Sydney, is not a great experience.

  1. Not knowing when an available taxi will drive by.
  2. Not knowing where taxi stands are.
  3. Now knowing the exact cost to destination.

The design of the Uber experience is phenomenal. From an interaction standpoint, Uber solves all of the consumers uncertainties within one screen.

On the opening of the app (with location services permitted), the user does not have to engage with any UI elements to experience the value of the product. This is a great example of industry leading design thinking. They’ve nailed “What is the least amount of work a user has to do, to achieve their desired outcome?” on the head.

As the app loads:

  1. You can see where available taxis are.
  2. Uber also provides an estimated time for the closest taxi to arrive.
  3. The Uber experience only seems trivial and obvious in retrospective. Looking back at previous ‘taxi booking’ experiences, the most obvious ‘solution’ seemed to be calling a hotline, leave your name and provide a vague location.

If you have noticed with the success of Uber, the entire concept of booking cabs has diminished. Uber doesn’t offer the ability to ‘book a cab for tomorrow’. They’ve disrupted and revolutionised the industry standards and expectations.

  1. NestSelf-learning Thermostat

Current thermostats are expensive, complicated and inefficient. Tony Fadell saw this as a major problem, so he created Nest. As the designer of 18 generations of iPods and 3 generations of iPhones, he applied his learnings in creating a ‘Smart Thermostat’.

Most people don’t program their thermostats for many reasons — for me it’s because it’s too fiddly. The Nest team have come up with an experience so great, it’s literally invisible.

For the first 7 days of installation, the thermostat will learn your preferences and personalised schedule. Some features it accommodates include:

  • Ability to track your location via Location settings and will turn down the power when you’re away.
  • It will then power up as it tracks that you’re returning home, so your home’s nice and cosy on arrival.
  • Nest learns your night time habits and will turn down the power.
  • Signals to prompt you that you’re saving energy
  • The value proposition of Nest is that you teach it your habits and it’ll help you save.

This is great because it’s all done behind the scenes. The only thing required from the user is to set the temperatures during the first week. There’s no more fiddling around with unnecessary UI elements. Hence why Nest was bought out by Google.

The Rise of Personal Assistant Apps

Great (invisible) design comes at a great cost.

As we endure technological advances and a better understanding of technology, data, user behaviours and expectations, these experiences become more and more achievable. That is why there has been a surge and uprise in Personal Assistant apps.

What do Portal, Emu, VidaHealth, Mindy, Cortana, Siri and Google Now all have in common?

They’re all a stepping stone in becoming great experiences. They’re focused on delivering an experience where the ‘processing work’ happens behind the scenes. “As a consumer, why do I need to click through a form to tell you what I need? Is it because we’re still adapting old practices, or is it actually a better experience overall?”

I do believe some of these personal assistant apps are powered by manual work at the moment — but as these startups continue to capture more and more data, the opportunity to automate a lot of the manual work will become available. In the next 5 years, we are going to see technology become more integrated than ever, with experiences also becoming even more seamless. I am absolutely blown away by what the team over at Microsoft Cortana are doing!


I hope you’ve learnt a few things from this article and that you’re able to put these design thinking principles into practice. I challenge you, to start pushing yourself into exploring new ways of experiencing digital products. We’re in a digital age where lots of things are now possible. Don’t conform to patterns and trends, they don’t last.

“A human made these things & a human can make it better. Don’t be afraid. Go try it yourself” — Tony Fadell

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