The Semiotics of Usability

Why Simple Isn’t Always Desirable


“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.”

—Nielsen Norman Group, leaders in the UX field


Key Takeaways

  • Despite the digital age, the synthesizer endures as an aspirational interface that succeeds in the modern day culture of usability and streamlined simplicity.
  • Unfriendly interfaces can appear authentic and contribute towards cultivating a culture of skill and achievement.
  • As we are freed from the constraints of physical design and our devices go digital and simpler, we need to consider how we can imbue interfaces with more meaning.
  • Good UX embraces tensions of accessibility and gamification, of simplicity and a rewarding, steep learning curve.

Reaching Reliance: The Interface Disappears

The classic analogue synthesisers of the ‘60s and ‘70s have emerged from a long exile as icons of progressive rock self-indulgence to become the essence of retro electronic cool. Unfortunately for those taken by the fashion for classic synths, much of the surviving hardware now changes hands for thousands of pounds. Not only are they hard to find, many were notoriously difficult to program and just as difficult to maintain, with dozens of electronic components susceptible to failure or miscalibration.

Semiotics of UX
Keith Emerson, Moog

There’s a far easier way to engage with these analogue instruments. VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments virtually emulate the analogue sounds of original instruments without the troublesome analogue circuitry. A VST is capable of reproducing the original, but stripped of ‘fuss’. Understandably, some reproduce their characterful quirks—the flutter of an imperfect oscillator or the clip of a signal driven too hard. It is less easy to understand the digital preservation of another feature common to these instruments—a fearsomely complex interface.

Analogue synths were complex for a reason. Each element of the synth required its own components and controls. As the synths grew more sophisticated, the number of controls multiplied to the point where the interface started to resemble a flight deck. To a musician who understands how the circuitry acts upon the sound signal, such an interface makes sense. Manipulating sounds by turning knobs and sliding faders becomes a part of playing the instrument, and using the interface soon becomes second nature.

In usability terms, the musician who reaches this stage has achieved a state of reliance, where he or she need not consciously think about the function and location of each control and can use the interface whilst barely having to look at it, just as most people can touch type. As far as usability goes, reliance is the ideal achievement – it means that the user has explored the interface, understood its logic and mapping, and internalised it. In effect, the interface has disappeared.

Desirability: Dazzling Interfaces

In a hardware instrument, the interface is just one component, and this frees it to be purely functional. The interface on a Nord Lead, for example, consists of sober greys and tiny white text, whilst the body of the instrument is a striking bright red. The body dazzles and calls attention to itself, whilst the interface focuses only on business. The body—its distinct colour, shape, size, prominent logo—deals with the task of making the instrument desirable.

Semiotics of UX
Nord Lead

The distinctive visual presence of the Nord Lead (and all Nord products) gives it a strong identity that underlines its difference from other synths. To those in the know, a Nord marks its user as a savvy player who recognises quality, and brings him or her into a community of other such players. It stands for endless creativity and aural adventure. If the whole instrument mirrored the sober, anonymous interface, this would not be so. Both functional usability and non-functional desirability are essential factors, then, in an ongoing relationship between user and synth.

That may stand for a hardware synth, but not for an instrument that, like the computer-based VST synth, is pure interface. Whilst a hardware synth’s interface is free to disappear into a state of reliance thanks to its desirability lying elsewhere, a VST has only its interface to call upon for both usability and desirability. In terms of usability, the interface should disappear. To retain desirability, it can’t.

Retaining Meaning and Skill in a Virtual World

So the interface must remain visible as a way of supporting the meaningfulness of the virtual instrument. Thus virtual emulations of old synths frequently trade usability and flexibility for daunting complexity and slavish authenticity.

Semiotics of UX
ARP 2600

Take Arturia’s much-lauded emulation of the ARP 2600, for example, which recreates the hardware synth in all its complexity. In terms of usability, this software instrument is a horror. There are dozens of sliders and knobs that can only be manipulated with the mouse, tiny text that can’t be enlarged and no means of simplifying or even resizing the interface. It takes patience and dedication to attain even a basic familiarity. Reliance? Not a chance.

However, the stubbornness of the interface assures its desirability. In refusing to yield to even the simplest of the demands of contemporary interface design, the synth declares the authenticity of its experience. It proves its retro pedigree by revelling in the awkward complexity of the original. It is offering a gateway into a world that prizes obscurity and user-unfriendliness as founding values, and whose heroes are the electro-nerds who tame these beasts. It joins the user experience with a world of meaning to be explored. It does this by running entirely counter to the modern logic of usability.

Semiotics of UX
Floating Points, Aphex Twin’s ‘Cheetah’

Many retro synth VSTs could be taken as both the perfect argument for, and the perfect argument against skeuomorphism, the use of graphic elements in interfaces that represent real-world objects (such as a floppy disk icon to mean ‘save’). The ARP 2600 interface is so wedded to its real-world equivalent that its usability is severely hindered. In terms of function, it bears no scrutiny—under the rules of design for usability, its interface is a capital crime.

Imagine the same interface wrought in the mode of material design, with flat planes of colour, an ordered grid, layers, shadows, and purged of unnecessary ornament. It would certainly make the instrument easier to use, but as an authentic experience of an analogue synth and the world of meaning of which it is part, it would be utterly inert.

Maintaining Accessibility and Meaning

This tension between usability and desirability is by no means exclusive to digital interfaces. Take, for example, an electronic toy for babies such as the one pictured. The interface of this toy features various buttons, knobs and shapes to press, turn, insert and spin, each of which trigger corresponding noises, tunes and flashing lights. For an infant, this interface is an incredibly complex proposition. Buttons that an adult can push with ease require a feat of determined concentration. Gripping and turning a knob means mastering two or more simultaneous movements whilst also staying upright. Responding to the toy’s pre-recorded instructions requires the acquisition of language. Now the tinny moo of a cow or a flash of light signals an achievement, and is reward worth pursuing again and again. The noises and lights need not be part of any deeper narrative structure, as their meaning is entirely present in the consequence of an action achieved. For a one-year-old, this interface offers countless hours of noisy enjoyment precisely because it is not simple or ‘usable’. Once mastered, the child will quickly move on to bigger, noisier challenges.

Semiotics of UX
VTech Sit to Stand Learning Walker

Of course, not every interface aims to be desirable – a fire extinguisher doesn’t need to appeal to the user’s sense of identity or particular tastes. Not every desirable interface needs to reassert its presence by challenging the user with complexity and awkwardness. However, the tension between eminent usability through simplicity and meaningfulness in complexity means interfaces cannot have it both ways.

As interfaces become ever more virtual and freed from the design constraints of physical mechanisms, they need to offer a more meaningful experience, and thus the doctrines of design for usability cannot provide. A usable interface needs only to make sense, but a desirable interface has to have meaning.

—Stephen Beckett, lecturer in design theory and history