- in Design
- September 9th, 2014
- by Aaron Dickey
User experience design is big, especially as it relates to web interfaces and interactions.
It’s rare that the prophets proclaiming the manifold benefits of “good” UX design are silent, but I think we might be missing the point. True, there is some benefit to the claims: good design requires a good understanding of the problem we are trying to solve and data can be useful as we formulate a solution. After all, who doesn’t want to create things that are easy for people to use and the fear of lost conversions if we don’t do it “right” silences most dissent.
It doesn’t help that we live in an age of massive access to information which drives us to find new and better ways to manage the flow of that information so as not to overwhelm our capability to absorb it. About fifteen years ago, Monika Parrinder published an article in Eye where she wrote:
“The usual ‘designer response’ is either to create design which attempts to make sense of information overload, or to create design that attempts to block it out by delivering ‘experiences’ not information.”
Looking at UX design today I find that statement a rebuke to how we approach designing interactions. The rock star status of UX and data in design circles has led to what I feel is undue emphasis on the experience over the information for which the experience ostensibly exists to deliver. So long as the user is “happy” because of their experience not much else matters. Understanding how the people interact with what we create is very important and this may seem like an unduly harsh criticism, but it is not lightly given.
One of the major outlets for web design, Smashing Magazine, recently published an article purporting that the ultimate goal of a website is happy users which leads to more conversions. The article was talking about responsive design and user experience and while the point wasn’t elaborated on and was a relatively minor statement in the article, it struck me as a rather presumptive and narrow viewpoint. Why? Because by assuming that the end goal is simply happy users you negate the emotion that the information itself may impart on the user or how the interaction might be designed so as to enhance this emotion.
Maybe we’ve taken this approach because we feel there is too much information and emphasizing the experience masks the real issue while our data tells us we’ve created happy users to sacrifice on the alter of the almighty conversion. Many years ago the art of typography was compared to a crystal goblet, signifying that the typography should be invisible, enhancing the content delivered.
Much has changed since then but the principle still has application today, especially when it comes to user experience design. By designing experiences, or better, interactions that are invisible we allow users to focus their attention on the information that drew them to our site in the first place. We connect the users emotion to the information rather than the act of interfacing with the delivery mechanism.
I should clarify that invisible as used here is not synonymous with interfaces and interactions that require no thought. Very few interfaces and interactions are truly intuitive and while patterns can ease the learning process, all interfaces must be learned. Consistency throughout the interface is of absolute necessity; conformity to convention is plastic.
To explain this differently, most of us don’t consciously think about pipes. They invisibly work to bring clean water to us and remove waste water but are essential to how we live and work. We only think about plumbing when something goes wrong like a pipe starts to leak or breaks. UX design encapsulates information and conveys it to the user not unlike the pipes in our example.
As designers, it is our responsibility to ensure that what we create communicates the information rather than exposes the method of delivery. When we design interactions we must not forget that our data represents real, thinking people. People who don’t become “user drones” once they open our sites and who likely aren’t coming just to see the experience we’ve created. If we remember this, perhaps we can create experiences that enhance the information they are designed to deliver.