Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Distressed in a cube

Dr. Usability

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Dear Dr. Usability,

I'm an interaction designer for a Web security service that has updates every two weeks. I slosh out designs all day. I get business requirements emailed to me pretty much on a daily basis. I take these business requirements and draw up user interfaces and send them out. I'm always careful not to deviate from our consistent unified user interface approach to design as spelled out in our user interface style guide, which is based on company and platform standards.

This is the part I love most about my work, and wouldn't change it for anything in the world: I, and my whole development team, love consistency. The design is predictable. Everyone in the company is happy. But, as you can imagine, that is not the end of the story.

I also get email from users asking me to change things. They want me to deviate from the style guide, which would make my designs non-standard. I want to make everyone happy, but now I'm caught. I have to pick between the people who write my paycheck and those that pay for it. This situation is making me so stressed out I'm having a hard time meeting my deadlines. What should I do?

—Distressed in a Cube

Dear Distressed,

Breathe. Live. Design. There is more to life than consistency. In fact, the more I hear developers advocating consistency the more suspicious I am of it. Consistency itself is not a goal, it's a tool. You wouldn't use the same tool for everything, now, would you? Just look outside your discipline for an analogy: Where would the auto industry be with consistency? Or bubble gum? How boring would it be if everything were the same?

And while we're on the topic: consistent with what and for whom? Can you design a consistent interface for a naïve user to protect their own computer as for a security manager that has to protect thousands of machines? The answer is no. However, it is probably asking too much of the naïve user who just became a security manager to have to completely re-learn the computer just to use your Web service. This is where Familiarity is your goal. Unlike consistency (booo!), familiarity (yeah!) is not a bad goal. Leveraging familiarity naturally reduces the user's cognitive load. But wait—you've heard familiarity breeds contempt, right? This happens when familiarity is really masking consistency. Consistency means your users aren't really noticing changes because everything is the same.

I suggest you occasionally live it up a little, and here's your ticket: gestalt principles. You've never heard of this before because you are not a doctor, like me. Gestalt principles are usually associated with Max Wertheimer and polysyllabic words like experimental-phenomenological methods, which might not be in the index to your style guide, but I hope will be, shortly.

Gestalt principles have something for everybody, including you. Herewith I point you to two very important gestalt design guidelines: unity and variation (ooooh!). The unity guideline calls for unity of design from the perspective of the viewer. In artwork that unity is self-contained. We systems designers have no such luxury. The user takes their frame of references with them. To present users with a unified user experience you need to look beyond the self-contained system and look at the user (or rather your user groups) and their frame of reference. Then you need to craft your interface so that it makes sense to each different user group (a user group is a persona off of steroids—more on that in another issue, if someone writes me a letter about it). A unified user experience for a specific user group will likely cause you to draw outside the lines now and then, or (dare we say) violate some style guide conventions. It's ok, really—the doctor says so.

Another important gestalt principle is that of variety. You can usually work within a guideline to provide variety, but sometimes the requests you receive will require inventiveness. A user's sense of excitement and desire can be provoked when there is a balance between unity and variation. If everything is simply unified (consistent), it quickly can become boring or even invisible. A user can actually build a blind spot, what we in the biz call a scotoma, if confronted with something that never changes. This means the few times it really does change we don't notice it. As an example, when was the last time you read an error message? In the spirit of the concept defined by unity, an element of subtle variation is essential—an arbitrary variation would be inconsistent by anyone's definition. So I personally give you permission for subtle variation.

Did I further distress you? I hope not—since you enjoy guidelines, you now have two more that balance each other: unity and variety.

Omnisciently yours as always,
Dr. Usability

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