Rethinking Design Principles


Design junkies often preach of design principles and rules that lead to good design. But sometimes, design values aren’t as absolute as they appear. As design pros, we’ve been taught to produce and redesign things to be more simple, more engaging, more functional, and more enjoyable. While most of the time they’re for the better, it’s also a good idea to consider abandoning these principles when you can make a product or design better without them.

Don’t Strive for Simplicity.

Simplicity for its own sake has no appeal, otherwise we would all prefer to be a bodiless brain in a vat, left in isolation, and free from the complexity of daily life and social relationships. Simplicity isn’t substantial without a reference point. There’s an amount of simplicity that’s usually desired, but maximum simplicity without regard for other values can be hilariously elementary or even downright dangerous.

Simple by itself consists of one button, or even no input at all. Cruise control without a gas pedal or brakes. A UX that replaces a heart at the wink of an eye. It’s taking a feature and making it as simple as possible. Redesign a keyboard to be a wheel.

Simplicity does not equal good design. At the WWDC this year (which revealed iOS 7) Jonathan Ive stated that design was about managing complexity. I’ve heard that from others before, and also feel like it encapsulates the desired result much better than striving for simplicity. Reduce when necessary and helpful. Add things that are essential and don’t impede usefulness and clarity.

Simplifying is hugely beneficial when there is no concern it will infringe on necessity. A cockpit allows for quick control (speed advantage), deep involvement with lots of features (breadth of opportunity), and is far from simple. While I’m sure a UX makeover could optimize the controls of a cockpit, the current intricacy satisfies a need and enables pilots to do their job well.

Efficiency is Intrusive.

Efficiency does not make a good user experience. Efficiency is a path of least resistance. It’s like preferring a medical device for nutrition even when you are able to eat. For healthy people, it would be rare for someone to opt to be fed through a bolus tube, even though it provides nutrition without having to digest by mouth. We can’t cling to optimizing performance criteria, such as time to learn, and time to complete a task. By themselves, it’s only abstract data that can help inform what you should do. It doesn’t account for the value of enjoying time, and for feeling comfortable.

Joel Spolsky argues that “Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a nightclub, it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with lots of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms. But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other.”

Don’t Engage me!

Marketers and businesspeople know the power of engagement. But we don’t need to latch onto our customers and hold their hands so hard until they’re dripping with sweat and they’ve lost sleep. Usually the goal is to get people addicted to your products through gamification, alerts, email reminders, etc. You can crank up retention by spamming people and intruding in their lives, or find a balance and let the desirability of your product be the magnet that attracts fans. While it’s possible to psychologically hack people to engage, this can go to immoral extremes, but it can also positively influence people to do good as well.

It’s not all happiness though. Some say that your app makes me fat by taking up precious mental resources. I haven’t stepped on the scale lately…

The Dark Side of Enjoyment.

Depending on where you’re directing attention, you can help people enjoy the wrong things. People might gawk at others’ misery, or abuse your features against your intentions. And if you are making money off of harmful habits, you’ll have to face the moral consequences of supporting enjoyment at the price of users, just as a bartender who can play a part in promoting or preventing drunk driving. A study showed that rats chose to press a lever that sends pleasurable brain stimulation to their head instead of eating. Don’t treat your customers as lab rats that will die of starvation just for a joyride.

Throw Away the Rules?

While these common design principles encapsulate the general checklist for upstanding design attributes, they aren’t set in stone. Settings change. People have different needs at different times to support a variety of feelings and goals. A solution involving human beings can’t fit neatly into a formula and be expected to perform in all situations. While questioning the rules can lead to novel solutions, they are still important to consider. Principles act as guides and suggestions that apply to a majority of cases, but they don’t replace careful modification and application of a completed outcome by designers collaborating with others with different specialties.