The topic of “Homogeneity of Design” seems to be creeping back into the feeds of my various blue shaded social medias. I’d like to make a few points about digital design as I see it, from my perspective. Firstly, I’d obviously consider myself a creative / visual person. I love creating unique and distinct things; from my tattoos, brands, illustrations and digital ‘products’. I’ve always enjoyed looking and understanding the reasons why something is the way it is.
I think we would all agree, especially in digital design; industry established paradigms are good. Users learn to expect certain behaviours, because they are almost universal. Pull to refresh, navigation patterns, swipe to dismiss or even something as simple as a text link. These ‘elements’ are styles or interaction choices that a designer can utilise knowing that a user will instantly feel familiar with them. This is good, especially given the complexity of modern interfaces, ensuring users never feel out of their depth, even when completing complex tasks. This does mean however, that one social media app will look resemble another, but that’s fine. All socks are the same, it’s just the material that changes.
I can’t remember anyone complaining about the homogeneity of socks, a road sign or even a calculator. Thats because they’re functional for the ‘user’ and simply put – work. On the other hand, having just moved office. Seemingly every Phone/TV manufacturer feels the need to have a unique remote or interface that requires pot luck or a user guide to use.
Arguably digital design isn’t a visual expression. It is a framework, a medium between a user and a machine. The interface and interactions we create forms a global ‘digital’ language that everyone can use to communicate.
When designing a website, every designer would want it to look visually impressive and that’s really important. However it’s not the only challenge, ultimately the primary goal is to create something that users understand and enjoy using. Crafting a unique visual style to make the website look visually different from the competition is important for the brand. However this can’t be at the cost of usability and function. Ultimately a poor experience is often more costly to the brand than homogeneity.
I’m personally neither for or against Dribbble as a design platform. That said, blaming it for homogeneity within the design industry is misunderstanding the point. An example would be the ‘social media blue’ that seems to creep into every apps colour palette. The homogeneity of a product’s colour isn’t because of Dribbble, but because of colour theory and suitability. As designers we need to consider accessibility (text links, buttons, error states etc), user behaviour and recognition. This process ultimately leads to certain colours being more suitable for certain ‘products’.
At the same time I’d hate to live in world where every website looks like it’s fallen out of Bootstrap, hitting every trend branch on the way down. Character is very important within a product, but a brands character isn’t just its visual design. As someone who spends a lot of time developing brands online, a lot of the character isn’t in the ‘visual’. It’s in the playful interactions, it’s in the cheerful copy, it’s in the nuance. Certain pages shouldn’t be too bold with their visual design, for instance a basket page of an Ecommerce website, but it can still communicate the brand via copy or animation.
Knowing when to break free from highly prototypical patterns is part of the art of digital design. It should only be done sparingly and at the right time. When done too frequently, users lose trust in the product because it removes itself from the norm; causing confusion and begging the question why. When never done, users lose interest because it seems formulaic and lacks any originality to make the experience feel exciting or fresh.
It’s easy to blame lack of innovation on designers and that we’re not looking for “better solutions”. That however sounds a touch naive. If as a designer I know certain patterns ‘work’ and users are happy to interact with them, why would I risk this? When checking train times do I want a “new experience”? No. Not really. mobile gambling I just want to be able to easily find out how to get somewhere and at what cost.
Usually, or should I say in my experience. The real wow factor of a ’product’ is the user completing their desired action effortlessly and in the shortest time possible. The sprinklings on top is the finesse of the experience (e.g. animations or great copy).
Of course, everyone needs to experiment. Without it we wouldn’t improve or develop anything we have. If you do experiment, do it slowly and responsibly with the user in mind. Ensure it has a purpose that serves your users and not to simply be ‘different’.
So to conclude. Don’t strive to be different. Strive to improve.