Written by Jessica Lowry.
Everything is designed. We do not live in a world of chaos. Even the natural world is designed through evolutionary refinement. All things exist to perform a specific function (even if simply existing to evoke an emotion), and it’s all experienced through our senses.
Design failure is an inability to communicate. If we’re unable to understand how to interact through our senses, we become completely lost. In this piece, we’ll describe some tips for communicating more clearly through interaction design.
Nature is the Original Designer
Ever wonder why you push the elevator button more than once? The answer lies in nature.
In nature, every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. The wind blows and it causes the leaves on a tree to flutter. This feedback informs us about our environment, weather and safety. A light breeze is delightful. A whirlwind of leaves may signal an impending thunderstorm.
When designing experiences for human beings, we must understand how we process interactions. Let’s look at the elevator button as an example: if sound or light doesn’t indicate that pressing a button fulfills an expected reaction (the elevator arriving), we will instinctively press the button several times.
We wait. We wonder if the elevator will actually show up. We fear being forced to walk down the stairs. Failing to effectively communicate with users leaves them feeling alone, anxious and mistrusting.
Our main goal in interaction design is to empower users to feel confident when performing any type of action. All of the information on the screen needs to help focus the user on a task. Always minimize cognitive load.
We’re not advising that you hide interactive touch-points. On the contrary, effective interactive design keeps interactive elements in plain sight. There shouldn’t be a need to guess.
Tips for reducing guesswork:
- Pay attention to what users are regularly exposed to. Know where users spend the majority of their time. For example, UXPin accounts for designers who may come from a Photoshop or Sketch background. As such, the interaction design feels familiar to these tools (which makes the interface more learnable) but still retains its own unique identity.
- Consider global design standards. Digital design standards are an ever moving target. Sometimes they hinder your design, but they usually improve consistency and usability. Know the rules before you think about breaking them.
- Don’t forget about accessibility. Ensure users of all capabilities have a good experience by following the latest accessibility guidelines. A bonus is that these constraints also further simplify your design.
- Use color appropriately. As a convention, red has traditionally been used as a warning. Know which colors communicate what moods and messaging by understanding color theory in web design.
Good Design Never Leaves Anyone Guessing
Let’s again look beyond digital design to discover some practical lessons. In public transportation, you’ll notice many different ways to design the request stop feature.
In many countries, there are two types of stop features on a bus. One requests the bus to stop at a particular location and the other is for use in an emergency.
Very often, I’ve seen these two buttons designed exactly the same way, but for opposite uses. A red button may request a stop or alert the driver to an emergency. Or a yellow strip may also perform either of these functions. And then there’s the old school cable pull to request a stop. Since there isn’t a global conformity to using these types of interactive features, it’s fair to wonder how often tourists perform the wrong action.
The lesson for interaction design is to ensure consistency throughout your design.
- Be externally consistent by creating familiar interfaces that match user expectations. It’s fine to offer a new design solution that outpaces your competitors. But defying useful conventions for the sake of being clever will only damage the experience.
- Be internally consistent by ensuring that your own interface doesn’t deviate from itself. As described in Web Design Best Practices, style guides and pattern libraries help build internal consistency.
- Be sure to keep up with well established UI Guidelines. Consider adopting a trend after it has been widely accepted. It’s perfectly fine to be a later adopter of a trend. Time will allow you to evaluate the best needs for your users to separate fads from best practices.
Communication Tips for Designers
Figuring out how to effectively communicate through interaction design takes a bit of time and observation.
If the product’s already built, start by reviewing the analytics collected to date. Website analytics can tell you a lot about the majority of users visiting pages. Analyze the types of devices, user’s location, time of day and tasks performed to build some high-level assumptions. These assumptions form the foundation for personas.
Next, validate these assumptions by inviting people who fit these high-level traits for contextual interviews. You can conduct these interviews in person, via Google Hangouts or Skype. These contextual interviews ensure your personas account for everyday external factors: environments, devices, distractions, and technological constraints (like WiFi availability).
Once you’ve solidified your personas, give them a realistic story with a customer journey map. You’re able to plot out all the steps a persona performs to complete a task.
Think about each interaction as part of a larger conversation:
- How can the interactive elements improve the experience for a busy user who could be pulled away at any moment?
- What must be communicated right away?
- What can wait til later?
This is where knowing the device and environment becomes extremely useful. If the user is at home working on a laptop, their interactions are more focused than when using their mobile devices as they commute home on the train. Good design always communicates appropriately based on context.
Users have short attention spans. They don’t want design, they want to accomplish their tasks and move on with their lives.
When you know your users and how they interact with existing products, you can design for the correct context. Then, ensure that your design stays consistent with what users are familiar with (and with the design itself), and you stand a much better chance of leaving a lasting impression.
For more design advice, check out the free e-book Web Design Best Practices. Topics include interaction design, web design, and visual design. The 109-page e-book offers its tips based on examples analyzed from 30+ companies.