If you look up the word objective in a thesaurus, you end up with synonyms like:
Making such a suggestion runs counter to the dominant mindset in usability and experience design: learn and understand your users and cater to their needs. The user is the center of the universe. As he should be. What we design and build, after all, is for the user to touch and use. What I’m suggesting here is that while yes, we want users to be happy, the path to that happiness isn’t achieved solely by listening to them and discovering what makes them happy.
One of the most popular design blogs out there is Kathy Sierra’s and company’s excellent Creating Passionate Users. It’s theme is simple: what can we as designers to do to get users excited about the things we design and build? How do we create that passion and loyalty that few products enjoy? Listening to and talking to users is part of it. But I think there’s something else going on.
If a product flatters a user, they get excited about it. It’s complimentary. It makes them feel smart. Beyond the flattery, the user feels an almost visceral connection with how a product works. “It knew what I was thinking.” When that is achieved, loyalty and passion will follow.
From my experience, a compelling design almost invariably taps into something far more instinctive than what a user explicitly desires. Our shared psychology did not pop into existence but is rather a product of millions of years of refinement and evolution. I’ve suggested in the past that we’re attracted to certain objective characteristics in design (rounded corners and open space) and I think there’s a lot more out there that good designers unconsciously leverage.
One of the things I think we seem to forget, as designers, is that we are of the same cognitive lineage – no different than the users we cater to. As a designer, I often find myself shutting out all that user data out as I stare at a blank page. In a sense, I become the user. I then embark on an effort to design something that simply feels right to me. In other words, I try to tap into these basic, common patterns that we all share.
We can suggest with some confidence certain conventions that are fairly universally agreed upon. Certain geometric shapes. Like a square or perfect circle. The notion of symmetry and balance in design is also worth noting. The way colors interact in a design (i.e. color schemes) also comes to mind. Then you’ve got other conventions who’s only evidence of objective appeal lies in their popularity. Rounded corners is an obvious example. The Golden Ratio, Section or Mean is another interesting convention that’s used in art, architecture and many other places. The Golden Ratio is interesting because there’s anecdotal evidence of its existence in nature (e.g. in the symmetry of the human face and body and plant life).
While these conventions are all around us, it’s very difficult to prove that they are inherently good for design. As designers and artists, we seem to subconsiously dip into them. A colleague once told me that you know you’ve got a good design when you just stop. You reach a sort of Zen place where any more touching feels more like tainting. An odd balance is struck.
I’m all for creating passionate users. There are few things more gratifying for a designer than hearing someone not only talk about your work but talk about it with excitement and emotion. I’m convinced that a key way to do that is by creating designs that emulate our shared, basic understanding of how we perceive, process and communicate with the world around us.