Designing structure with soul

- 5 min read

In a recent talk, Andy Clarke spoke of how we’re losing the creative soul of our design work as we focus our design processes on data-driven research, pattern systems and user experience. Library and pattern-led design are responsible for sites that could be mistaken for having a place in the cereal aisle of a supermarket (just look at Bootstrap sites). Yet, I believe there’s room at the table for both the structured patternisation and the soul of design to coexist; but it’s not a question of how, it's a question of when.

To me, the soul that Andy spoke of is entirely about finding humanity, it’s the same humanity that Aaron Walter spoke about in his book Designing for emotion – it’s about anthropomorphising the web.

An anthropomorphised object
Anthropomorphising the world, we either recognize, or make objects have human faces.

Between our products and services, and the people using them are a series of electronic devices and hurdles that obscure the communication. What we need to do, at the very least, is make those hurdles disappear.

We can make our designs more human by understanding our audience and what matters to them. The art direction and ideation are born from this, and it influences the details we sweat in execution, from getting the language right to making sure the tone is appropriate. When we’ve established art direction, it makes sense that we could be looking at the inception of a library of patterns, much like Daniel Mall’s element collages. The library is born out of the art direction.

Memorable websites

One question that Andy asked in his talk was “can you think of any memorable websites?” I could think of a tonne. But not all were good memories.

Remembered for all the wrong reasons

Being memorable is not always a great thing, I remember plenty of websites for being terrible. We can have soul, humanity, and beautiful style in our products and services, but if they don’t pass the basic functional test – no amount of personality can make up for not being able to perform the basic tasks. As Aaron Walter has pointed out using an adapted version of Maslows hierarchy of needs, we can only have the desirable/pleasurable once the functional has been addressed.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Aaron Walter's adaptation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

I remember ticketing websites that have cost me seeing artists I love, through bad design and even worse server architecture. When 8:55am ticks over on a day my favourite comedian or musician’s tickets are to be released and all attempts to browse the site are hindered by either performance woes, or not even being able to view the site at all, that is a pretty big failure.

Restaurant websites often obscure the most important details that we want in the name of creative expeditions that I could only describe as being incredibly self-congratulatory, you know, the kind that win design awards that no one who uses them got any say in. I don’t remember them as being exciting or edgy brands that delighted me – I remember them as being clunky, awful and unsatisfying.

Good memories with impact

Fortunately, there were also plenty of great memories of websites, unique style, beautiful copywriting, and design details that delighted.

Dropbox took a risk in their Art direction, their brand stands out so much I doubt most people would be able to name their competitors.

Dropbox’s beautiful illustrations and frictionless onboarding experience made the digital equivalent of a filing cabinet fun and exciting.

When Both Peter Wilson and Damien Fitzpatrick said their companies make boring software, well, Dropbox without its personality is boring software, personality can even make storage exciting.

Fitbit turns collected data into something tangible, understandable and enjoyable.

Fitbit, and Chartbeat are two more examples of companies whose product could be soulless and unexciting. Their products are collected data – but through design (especially with Fitbit), they’ve humanised the experience. David Sedaris even wrote a massive story in the New Yorker about how much of an impact Fitbit had on him, it enriched his life. In contrast, look at Google Analytics, a product that is feature-filled but devoid of any personality.

Virgin America's booking interface
Virgin America made a booking interface that's mobile friendly, and delights to use.

Virgin America, redefined the experience of booking a flight online, especially on a small screen portable device. Booking online on a mobile phone can be an incredibly blood boiling experience. If they can make booking a seat on a plane delightful, we can make just about anything on a small screen delightful.

Shopify add to cart animation
Shopify's add to cart animation makes adding to cart fun.

Shopify and Photojojo have interface animations which bring their products to life. Shopify’s ‘add to cart’ animation makes you want to add to cart over and over again, and the quirkiness of Photojojo’s ‘don’t pull this lever’ helps shape the fun of the brand.

New York Times
The New York Times feature articles showed us that we could make reading on the web memorable and beautiful.

Medium, the New York Times, The Great Discontent are all memorable to me for showing us that you can make a reading experience on the web that isn’t terrible, they pushed past the notion that reading on a screen is uncomfortable and undesirable.

Soul in our structures

Any of the good memories I listed could have their interfaces abstracted into patterns and have a UI language written and documented in the way Ben Buchanan mentioned in his recent Respond talk. Each of these sites could be built with progressive enhancement, accessibility and optimised for performance in the ways that both Scott Jehl and Yesenia Perez spoke of in theirs.

The techniques we use are not at odds with the soul of design, in fact I’d say they make the soul stronger. When you take the time to make access a priority over cheap parlour tricks – you’re taking a stand. You’re saying “I care about making this a place for all,” and as Scott pointed out this isn’t just about being empathetic to humans, it’s good business too.

“Access is not just a matter of empathy, access is our job”
– Scott Jehl

Soul isn’t just about creativity, it’s about showing you care in a world where we’re becoming increasingly more connected through wires, electronics and signals than through face to face contact. It’s about having the ambition to bring positive change to the world.

The research we do isn’t fighting or stifling our creativity, it’s informing it. The problem may be that some organisations want to be seen as ‘research heavy,’ yet lack the ability to understand how to ask the right questions or find the right people to ask.

To these organisations, I believe it’s more about ‘having a research team’ that can be sold to shareholders/customers than actually having useful research to better their work.

User Experience isn’t about ‘asking people what they want,’ or running focus groups for people to tell you what they think you want to hear. It’s about understanding key groups of people who are core to your product or service and helping them get to those goals with less friction.

Good research can give you an idea about who your people are and what language they use. This matters when they’re trying to interact with your interface and understand the terminology you’ve used in buttons, error messages, and instructions. Relly Annett-Baker, Joshua Porter and Des Traynor have spoken about this at length.

It’s this research which can define our constraints and map out how we approach copywriting or organising our information so that people actually understand it.

We can’t know how far we can stretch the tone and personality of a design when we know nothing about how conservative or how wild our audience is.

Imagine your trusted banking website with Mailchimp’s monkey. Getting the tone right requires understanding, just remember Clippy, the world’s most condescending Microsoft Word help tool.

Predictable yet creative

I believe it is possible to have predictable, repeatable processes that produce creative outcomes. If we recognise the discovery process as an important time to understand our audience and map out goals, we can use that as a platform for better decision making – we can set clearer goals to develop strategies to succeed.

Our data and research isn’t a map with x-marks the spot, it’s a compass to point us in the right direction. The problem with data is when its treated as absolute. When people make statements like “the data doesn’t lie” in order to win an arguement, or push a bias. Data doesn’t lie, but sometimes our interpretations do.

Our pattern libraries and living style guides aren’t our starting point, they’re our waypoints, they say – at this point we’ve documented what this actually is, they’re about maintenance not creative control. Our processes aren’t stifling us, they’re just tools, how and when we use them is the important thing.