This was one of the topics that was discussed in UXSG Meetup #29.
I didn’t sit in this discussion for long, so honestly, I’m not entirely sure if I had interpreted the topic correctly. However, the topic (in the way I interpreted) is interesting to me, so I’d like to share some thoughts here. Hopefully, it will help spark more thoughts from everyone.
P.s.: If you are looking for notes captured from the discussion, this is probably not a good representation of it.
Now, before I begin, I’d like to list down a couple of definitions first to set the context for my thoughts. So, let’s see.
What’s user interaction?
User interaction is a way which a user interacts with a system, i.e. how the user acts on the system and vice-versa, how the systems acts on the user.
Pattern is a combination of qualities, acts, tendencies, etc., forming a consistent or characteristic arrangement.
Trend is the general course or prevailing tendency.
From there, let’s break things down a little to understand the flow of events.
Phase 1: A user interaction is designed.
Phase 2: It becomes a pattern.
For an interaction to become a pattern, it has to be used consistently in the same way within a system. The way to achieve consistent use is through repetition.
Phase 3: It becomes a trend.
Next, it becomes a trend when other design systems adopt the usage of this pattern.
Phase 4: A habit is formed.
Sufficient adoption through critical mass or length of time imprints the pattern into the user’s mental model.
A couple of things to ponder here.
- Can a pattern form a habit without it being a trend?
- A user interaction becomes a trend when it reaches mass adoption. How can we quantify mass?
I don’t have the answers yet, so let’s take a step back and explore how UX trends are created.
As a caveat, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, this is more of my stream of consciousness.
What I have here is general patterns I’ve observed. So feel free to add on.
I) The popular kid in school
The likelihood of a pattern becoming a trend increases when the pattern is introduced by a well-established brand in the Tech/Design/Startup space. Think Facebook, Google, and Apple. They are seen as innovators and often regarded as the frontiers of design, with a mass following, so there’s a higher tendency that their patterns get adopted easily and quickly.
An analogy would be the popular kid in school
Reference: Mean Girls Regina George Shirt Scene
So, here comes the question.
Does what the big boys designed automatically qualify as good patterns?
Do they abide by the principles of good design? Have they taken users’ needs into consideration?
Our general users probably won’t be as discerning. To them, they want to use the app, hence they will learn the patterns. But as designers, we ought to be more aware of it. As much as possible, we should try to rationalise and justify our designs, and not follow patterns blindly. If a pattern becomes a trend, make an effort to examine what works and why it works.
Learn to distinguish between patterns that are intuitive to users; and patterns that are “forced” upon users to learn.
On that note, I would like to direct you to an article. A slightly long but insightful read here: “How Apple is giving design a bad name “. It reminds me of the principles of design, and makes me question whether a design propagated by a big brand is necessarily a good one.
II) Mapping the understanding of offline/physical on to the online/virtual space
Get inspiration from what we already know in the physical world, and recreate these offline patterns into the online world to match the user’s mental model.
A way to do it would be through the use of metaphors, for an example, the trash bin icon. The act of interacting with that icon is to delete. This is a direct mapping of the physical behaviour to throwing unwanted things into a trash bin.
An awesome example (one of my personal favourites) would be Google Material Design. They’ve created a visual language that “synthesises the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.” Inspired by the study of paper and ink, they challenged themselves to extend the experience of tactile touch in the physical world into the technologically-advanced world. Google Material Design is gradually gaining traction. It may not have become an overnight trend within this region, but I believe it will be here to stay for a very long time. They may not create a trend, but I believe they can form a habit.
A particular quote I like from them, “Design is the art of considered creation”.
Yes, indeed. The design we do should be with intent.
III) Designing an interaction based on human motivations and behaviours.
When we create a new product or design a new interaction that lacks a physical manifestation or a reference point in the physical world, how do we deal with it?
Behaviours are conditioned by motivations and attitudes. Could we start off by understanding a user’s motivation, and observing how it translates into behaviour?
One example would be the “pinch to zoom” function for viewing photos or maps. In the physical world, we don’t pinch anything to view a larger image of it, so how was this interaction even designed in the place? Since the act of pinching indicates that we are dealing with something small (i.e. zooming out), it makes pinching a picture or map to make it smaller intuitive. Then, conversely, if pinching makes the item smaller, spreading the picture should make it larger.
Or another alternative method you could try if you are constrained to doing just desk research*, is to look through academic papers. There are already tonnes of research and experiments done in the fields of Design, and Psychology of human behaviours. Though challenging to plough through those papers, they could provide some surprisingly deeper insights to not just the What but the Why. (i.e. what did the user do vs why the user do). And who knows, you could convert that into something useful.
(*Of course, the best practice is still to go out, interact and observe users. But this method could be useful if you can’t gather sufficient information due to any constraints.)
Feature != UI
As a closing note, I would like to draw your attention to a separate note that a feature is not the same as a user interaction.
Let’s use Snapchat as an example to differentiate between feature and interaction. Snapchat is known for its feature of creating and sharing short stories. It grew so popular that Instagram followed suit to introduce Instagram stories. Is that a trend? And if that’s a trend, can we describe exactly what trend is?
What works for Snapchat is having the particular feature of frank, candid videos that get removed in 24 hours. But what about the user interaction design of the app?
Does Snapchat have a good UI? Does it practice good UX patterns?
I would say not. Personally, I felt lost when I first logged into the app. I was afraid to tap on any wrong command that records and sends out a video. And eventually, I lost patience with it and uninstall it. How many of you felt this way when you first installed Snapchat? (C’mon, I’m not the only not-so-young one here)
However, to be fair, I’m not their target audience to begin with.
Snapchat is an app that is very popular with the youth. And what are some broad traits of youth? Pardon my stereotyping here, but just for the sake of explaining this example, today’s youth loves to try new things. They love to explore and uncover hidden functions. That’s where they find fun and enjoyable – discovering new functions and telling their friends about it.
Snapchat did not have an intuitive UI. What they relied on was the behaviour of youths to share and learn, and the popularity of it, that if users want to be seen as cool, they will go through the trouble to learn the app.
In short, my point is, focus on your users, not UI trends.
We can capitalise on the trends that help us in our design for our users, but don’t do it blindly. Recognise distinction within the trend – was it the UI pattern or the functionality of the product that became the trend.
And should you have doubts, trust the design process – observe your users, run your tests.
If you wish to understand more on the psychology of how habits are formed, google this model “The Habit Loop” or read this book, The Power of Habit