Most designers will agree that the most successful interface design solutions are intuitive for users while being elegantly simple.
Simple as it sounds, actually developing a design with these qualities can be challenging and elusive.
There are a number of good reasons for this:
- The full range of functionality is not always included in the initial scope. As a result new features and functions get added-on later. This can bloat, break or simply confuse the interface.
- Application design today is increasing a collaborative effort where project sponsors, end users and others participate in the design process. The result often betrays the fact there is no single vision for the interface.
- Features that appeal or seem intuitive to some (but not all) make it into the final design and this can create mixed metaphors, obscure or inconsistent thinking.
While ux designers rarely can control the terms of the development process, (nor should they be) most of us would probably agree that the ux designer should take a leadership role to synthesize ideas around a coherent solution.
Using a Pattern-based Framework
To manage the design process effectively, designers need a solid conceptual framework. Without this, the design will be subject to unreasonable influence by individuals involved in the process who have a unique standpoint but can’t or aren’t willing to see the needs of the entire cohort of users.
• Using patterns allows ux designers to defend design decisions based on proven usability
• Used judiciously, patterns accelerate time to market and remove some risk
• Over-reliance on patterns, or patterns used in a cookie-cutter fashion can result in poor user experience
Why Patterns Work
Simply put, patterns work because they are in many ways the designers’ means to delivering an intuitive experience for end-users. Ultimately there is nothing intuitive about using computers other than the patterns of behaviors, expectations and visual appearances that have been established by previous experiences. By using well-established patterns, designers stand a better chance of “getting it right” than if they attempt to create a totally novel interaction design.
Balancing Innovation with Pattern Use
Developing innovative design paradigms is without doubt a critical component of the UX designer’s job. Without it there would be little opportunity for improvement over the current status quo. It can be argued that if we consistently stick to tried and true interface patterns design will become homogenous and boring—looking and behaving all alike.
By using patterns intelligently and critically it is possible to get the benefits of established patterns such as intuitive (which I would prefer to call habituated) use, ability to use or reuse existing functional components and a more speedy development process since the development team will be familiar with the functional patterns that are needed to support the UI. Slavish or thoughtless use of patterns will produce mediocre results. What makes pattern use valuable is the knowledge of when to use them and when not to.
Patterns and Customer Experience
Every pattern exists to solve a problem. Whether is to navigate a directory, conclude a purchase, register with a site or publish a comment, UI patterns build on the experiences that users have previously encountered completing similar tasks so that their ability to complete that task is consistent with their expectations. But a pattern is more than just a layout arrangement: Patterns exist as much in the end-users mind as in the display. No pattern can exist without end-user participants who have a cognitive memory of the pattern.
Breaking Patterns to Build a Unique Brand Experience
Consider for a minute what makes a particular brick and mortar experience unique and remarkable: Compare for example shopping at luxury clothing store vs. a local potter that makes handmade ceramics. Both stores offer unique products that can’t be easily obtained elsewhere and both have repeating patterns that we might refer to as:
• Enter the space
• Review/compare items for sale
• Get help selecting an item
• Purchase item[s]
• Comment on the experience
• Leave the space
We’d all probably agree that the patterns repeat but we also know that the experience can be dramatically distinct. Part of the success of both of these sorts of businesses goes beyond the quality and choice of products but is also tied up in the customer experience.
Luxury brands must reinforce exclusivity and brand consistency. This is usually communicated in high design standards and perfect craftsmanship in the store facility and presentation of goods, excellent customer service with a high sales associate to customer ratio and attention to detail such as packaging, signage and physical appearance of personnel.
The local potter is arguably just as reliant on customer experience for business success but of a completely different type. Customers will probably expect to be greeted warmly and informally upon entry, perhaps by the potter herself. The wares might be displayed within easy reach on simple unadorned shelves. In keeping with the handcrafted spirit, the facility would likely have a handmade feel.
Breaking Patterns to Give a Unique Customer Experience
In the interactive versions of these businesses there are places where the common patterns can be leveraged “as is” and other places where they need to be modified or broken to conform to the unique customer experience that is consistent with the ideals of the particular business.
The luxury store might, for example, eliminate the pattern Compare Items because purchase of a luxury item is usually not driven by comparison or by cost and providing the functionality might actually undermine the brand.
By contrast, the potter’s store might focus product selection directly on cost since their customers would be purchasing gifts with a predetermined budget in mind.
Patterns Resolve Problems
Patterns success depends on how well it solves a problem. Pattern usage depends on how common the problem is encountered. It all comes down to understanding your audience and brands so you can apply patterns judiciously.
Identifying user tasks in the context of brand experience is a thoughtful task that should drive the identification of candidate patterns and the ultimate web of patterns that you employ in your design.