But there’s a problem: There are issues of consistency that make it difficult to switch between the user interfaces. So, it’s hard to pop open the app on my phone to find out what my DVR is recording while the TV is playing a show. And it’s difficult to open my computer and tie a keyword search to my current viewing behavior, using its easier-to-type-on keyboard.
In a recent interview, Alan Kay spoke about providing devices like iPads in every classroom.
“I’ve used the analogy of what would happen if you put a piano in every classroom. If there is no other context, you will get a ‘chopsticks’ culture, and maybe even a pop culture. And this is pretty much what is happening.
“In other words, ‘the music is not in the piano.’”—Alan Kay
The same is true in any context. Simply adding user interfaces such as touchscreens will not magically solve our problems with TV. Existing products on mobile phones and iPad haven’t solved these problems. Adding any widget, feature, interface, interaction, or piece of hardware never automatically solves your problems with any information service or application. So how can we move the state of the art forward?
As UX designers, a set of best practices that we’ve inherited from prior work guides our work. Best practices have actually been proven to work. You should not confuse them with what I call common practice, which may be trendy and popular, but is still unproven—and may even be counterproductive or worst practices.
We generally organize best practices into broad categories by their applicability, for example:
Principle > Heuristic > Pattern > Template > Component
But there are other categories of best practices, and the bounds between them are open to much interpretation and argument. I won’t try to define any of these here, because that would be a whole essay in itself. In fact, for simplicity, I’m going to use the word pattern a bit too broadly, so just assume that I mean to encompass principles and heuristics as well.
Patterns and Innovation
As far as I can tell, our reliance on using new types of hardware to solve our problems is tied inexorably to the belief that change is always good. Perhaps this arises from the way growth has become ingrained in modern business practices. I’ve even seen some people go so far as to assume that, if change is good, all that has gone before is bad. Or at least, that everything old has become pointless and irrelevant.
Last year, Rian van der Merwe wrote an article that outlined his argument for breaking design patterns. He began with this definition:
“A pattern—whether in architecture, Web design, or another field—always has two components: first, it describes a common problem; secondly, it offers a standard solution to that problem.”
Then, he discusses breaking these standard solutions to come up with new, innovative ideas.
Taking another example, Stephen Turbek, writing for Boxes and Arrows, questions the value of pattern libraries as a whole:
“You cannot copy a UX pattern like you can copy a sewing pattern. Having someone read a pattern library will not make them a competent user experience designer. It would be akin to teaching writing by reading the dictionary—the whys are not answered.”
These writings all seem to allude to using the wrong sort of pattern libraries. Indeed, if you assume that patterns are a specific set of solutions, they won’t work. Patterns are not solutions like dress patterns, but constraints, guidelines, and examples. You use only the parts that apply, discarding others. All good pattern libraries provide variations on patterns and detailed explanations of when to use each variant.
Innovating Through Understanding
Most important, patterns provide an understanding of not just what the result should be, but also why. To stretch past current design best practices, you do not need to break patterns, but expand on them. This is something that comes up a lot as new technologies take over. Working in mobile, I see a lot of people who claim that it’s all so new that we have to set everything aside—despite 40 years of mobile telephony, 25 years of PDAs, and at least a decade of smartphones.
I often rail against working in the old ways and assuming that all new things are scary. Scott Jenson said this fairly well in a Quora discussion in 2011:
“Mobile, of course, isn’t really that hard. What makes it harder is that most people are coming from a desktop background, and they bring so much baggage to the table. The exact same thing happened when the Mac first came out, all sorts of DOS apps started to sprout ‘gooeys’ (GUIs), and it was comical. It just takes a while for an industry to shed its old ways.”
As Bill Buxton said while channeling Brian Arthur, “There is a precedent for all new technologies. The importance and the creativity are reflected in the insight with which those precedents are explored, tested, and combined.”
Applying Old Patterns
What I think is perhaps the most important facet of patterns—or principles or heuristics—is that they are generalized and are applicable to many situations, audiences, and platforms. In any discussion that devolves to innovation versus patterns, we should understand that new interfaces do not sweep aside patterns. Nor do new technologies change everything. They just change the importance and value of patterns and the way we apply them.
For example, at my very first, minimum-wage job, my office phone didn’t ring. (Why they couldn’t fix it I’ll never know.) However, the phone did make a very subtle clicking sound. But for the first few weeks on the job—before I got used to that sound—I felt compelled to pick up the phone every minute or two just make sure no one was calling. This memory sometimes comes back to me when I think of annunciators and how our mobile devices notify us of status changes.
Doorbells, phone ringers, and the LEDs that tell us we have new text messages all fall under the same category of what we might consider ambient information. Our mobile devices inform us of states and status changes without our having to deliberately pay attention to them. You don’t have to look out the window when someone rings your doorbell to see if someone is there, pick up the phone to find out if someone is calling, or read your mobile handset screen to see if there’s a new message. Instead our world beeps, blinks, and rings to tell us something has happened.
We continue to stretch this pattern usefully to new situations. Today, my mobile device has differently colored LEDs for various notifications—encoding the annunciator with content and context. On my phone, blue is a tweet, purple is an SMS, and pale yellow means I’ve received a new work email. The LEDs attract my attention, then their color registers a moment later when I notice the type of notification and its importance to me, in the moment.
What goes around comes around. And very often we don’t even need to study the history of a pattern—we just expand its scope because the right answer is sitting in some corner we simply aren’t paying attention to.
Just a few weeks ago, I read an article that, in all earnestness, discussed how the new thing in mobile is using color. This is something you might miss only if you were paying attention to just a very narrow set of trends, because the use of color has always been a key principle in ordering and organizing information. While the visual hierarchies that designers use vary, this is the one I’ve always used:
Position > Size > Shape > Contrast > Color > Form
There it is. Humans have color vision, so why would a designer ever ignore that when trying to establish a complex hierarchy to communicate the priority of various pieces of information? Well, most designers wouldn’t do that. Even when many iOS sites and apps were going for a monochromatic look, there was certainly use of color.
Patterns Are About People
Remember, patterns derive from principles and heuristics that are based on human physiology and cognitive psychology. Even as new technologies, user interfaces, and interactions arise, we base our designs for those new things on old, familiar patterns because they work for people. In interactive systems, tabs work regardless of whether they look like the tabs on file folders, because the concept of categories of similarly important information is important and universally valid. It is valid even for the tabs on folders inside file cabinets, which is why the original pattern came to be.
Principles of cognitive psychology apply to everyone. Whether someone is a business customer or a consumer, American or North African, we are all human. Sure, there are class and regional variations in people, but from working on products around the world, I’ve found that our similarities are much more striking than any differences.
This is why patterns exist and why they will continue to exist. We should all read and understand pattern libraries, even if we don’t believe in strictly following the patterns themselves.