Disappearing UI Elements – I Mean, WTF?

I recently noticed something while using software products by Google, Apple, and other trend-setters in user interface design. I’m talking about…

User interface elements that disappear

baby_peekabooI don’t know about you, but I am just tickled pink when I walk into the kitchen to look for the can opener, and can’t find it. (I could have sworn it was in THIS drawer. Or….maybe it was in THAT drawer?)

Sometimes I come BACK to the previous drawer, and see it right under my nose…it is as if an invisible prankster were playing tricks on me.

Oh how it makes me giggle like a baby who is playing peekaboo with mommy.

An open male hand, isolated on a white background.

Not really. I lied. It makes me irrational. It makes me crazy. It makes me want to dismember kittens.

Introducing: Apple’s New Disappearing Scrollbar!


According to DeSantis Briendel, “A clean and uncluttered visual experience is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of an intuitive and useful interface tool. Making a user hunt around for a hidden navigation element doesn’t seem very user friendly to us. We hope developers will pull back from the disappearing scrollbar brink, and save this humble but useful tool.”

It gets worse. If you have ever had to endure the process of customizing a YouTube channel, you may have discovered that the button to edit your channel is invisible until you move your mouse cursor over it.



I observed much gnashing of teeth on the internet about this issue.

One frustrated user on the Google Product Forums was looking for the gear icon in hopes to find a way to edit his channel. To his remark that there is no gear icon, another user joked…

“That is because “the team” is changing the layout and operation of the site faster than most people change underwear.”

…which is a problem that I brought up in a previous blog about the arbitrariness of modern user interfaces.

There are those who love bringing up Minority Report – and claim that user interfaces will eventually go away, allowing us to just wave our hands in the air and speak naturally, and to communicate with gestures in thin air.

Bore hole

In Disappearing UI: You Are the Interface, the author describes (in utopian prose) a rosy future where interfaces will disappear, liberating us to interact with software naturally.

But what is “natural”?

What is natural for the human eye, brain, and hand is to see, feel, and hear the things that we want to interact with, to physically interact with them, and then to see, feel, and hear the results of that interaction. Because of physics and human nature, I don’t see this ever changing.

OK, sure. John Maeda’s first rule for simplicity is to REDUCE.

But, by “reduce”, I don’t think he meant…

play hide and seek with the edit button or make the scroll bar disappear while no one is looking.

Perhaps one reason Apple is playing the disappearing scroll bar trick is that they want us to start doing their two-finger swipe. That would be ok if everyone had already given up their mice. Not so fast, Apple!

Perhaps Apple and Google are slowly and gradually preparing us for a world where interfaces will dissolve away completely, eventually disappearing altogether, allowing us to be one with their software.

Seems to me that a few billions years of evolution should have some sway over how we prefer to interact with objects and information in the world.

I like to see and feel the knife peeling the skin off a potato. It’s not just aesthetics: it’s information.

I like seeing a person’s eyes when I’m talking to them. I like seeing the doorknobs in the room. I like knowing where the light switch is.


Apple, please stop playing hide-and-seek with my scroll bar.



8 thoughts on “Disappearing UI Elements – I Mean, WTF?

  1. Ah.. another reason why I follow your blog. Quite a succinct critique of the state of user interface design, but unfortunately it’s a trend that’s been going on for some time. I remember getting frustrated by MS Word’s perpetual changing of the position of or hiding menu items, based on usage, that completely prevented users from developing any kind of “muscle memory” for locating things. It just seems to have got worse over the years, with interface designs opting for a “magical” interface model where elements appear and disappear according to their own opaque logic. I’d love to know what is driving these kinds of design decisions, but I can’t believe it’s via feedback from users.

  2. Muscle memory, habit, intuitiveness, reflex, these are all things that digitech interface is paying absolutely no attention to. Why? Who would design a car with the ignition to the left of the steering wheel? Or place the clutch in the middle of a standard transmission? MAR – KET – ING. “How can we convince you something is new if it looks like what you bought two years ago?” Why didn’t developing typewriters have different keyboards. They did. Beta/VHS: who will win? Remember mini-audio cassettes? Three formats: Japan, Euro, USA they all looked JUST ABOUT the same. But not. Proprietary design is what it’s called, I believe. Be afraid, innocent, little kittens, be very afraid.

  3. I must agree…
    I noticed Google doing this, some time ago and wrote them to ask why I now had to navigate some non-intuitive menu system to do something that had previously been a one click function. Was this not a step backwards?
    Of course there is no reply but on their site and blogs the answer seems to be that this is now the better way, the new “Bandwagon” I must get on…
    That is also one reason I will never buy apple products. Even the change to their iPhone power cable created a quite a stir. Never could tolerate their restrictive product philosophies.

  4. I think there is no question that the disappearing google-button is mysterious (at least) … but:
    In my opinion the disappearing apple-scrollbar is logical and actually ‘visible’ enough. In every user-interface one has to learn how things work or what they mean. Sometimes more intellectual effort is needed – sometimes less.
    As far my observations of non-tech-affine people are sufficient – even ‘visibliest’ scroll bars wont do it if they the users don’t know how to use them.

    In my imagination it is easier to learn scrolling by watching someone rolling a mouse-wheel (you also hear that *rrr-rrr-rrr-rrr* (talk about visibility!)) or doing the two-finger swipe (or one finger on phones … almost everyone has smartphones by now???) – I think that swipe gesture is somewhat ‘natural’, at least to a certain extent – though you still have to learn it.
    But using a mouse – isn’t that an “abstraction layer” of a higher order between body and computer?
    Coming from modern phones – the touchpad-scrolling on MacBooks seems pretty logical to me.
    And about visibility – you can see websites/text must continue at the bottom of the page if the site/text is illogically/unexpectedly interrupted -> so it must go on – and if you learned scrolling you know what to do. Or have the feeling what to do. Also: With touch and scroll-wheels it is no effort to “test” if the page continues. Whereas via scrolling by moving the mouse to the side, clicking and dragging, it is a certain effort to check whether content continues. So … scroll-wheels and gestures are more direct/natural I think …
    … and so on. humm. I hope I could express what I mean …
    There is a certain ease and probability to learn scrolling without scrollbars.

    BUT !!!

    You cannot see where _exactly_ you are! Yep. Thats true – but regarding the availability of the scroll function, I see no problem there.

    But I saw critical stuff in windows 8: Functions hidden in corners and borders of the screen and so on! Seriously?
    I dont quite know to what extend there are visible alternatives – but I, as a tech-affine guy, was somewhat confused … I really don’t want to start a microsoft vs. apple thing here – but I think in case one would write a serious essay about the visibility of interfaces windows 8 would have a nice chapter.

    … mhh yep!

    cheers :)

  5. I have never thought about the psychology of a UI user up until now. It seems to me that you are right in your despair. The current craziness about the design elements of each web page, program (new Word – I couldn’t even find the most basic buttons), or other type of interface. I voluntarily dig older design if possible, because it makes me feel more comfortable.

    • Thanks for pointing that out! – I just changed the setting. I never knew it was an option. (I hope the same is available for XCode). What worries me is that so many features that we have come to expect are removed, and then we have to dig into preferences to get them back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s