UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1052 July 9, 2013

Design Standards Let the Interface Disappear Behind the Experience

Invisibility has intrigued and captivated humans for millennia.

In Greek mythology, the young Perseus acquires Hades’ Cap of Darkness so that he might become invisible and slay the gorgon Medusa. Saul of Tarsus, in the New Testament book of Acts, speaks to the recently resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, yet the men travelling with Saul “stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.”

In contemporary mythology, rings and cloaks hide from view the heroes of Tolkien and Rowling, while the Clark Kents and Peter Parkers of pulp lore blend chameleon-like into the fabric of the metropolis.

In a more abstract sense, the notion of invisibility finds its expression in the tangible and performance arts. It was the French theorist Roland Barthes who said, “A photograph is always invisible; it is not it that we see.” In literature, it is said the pages of a book disappear from view as the reader becomes lost in the unfolding story. For the 20th Century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, it is the duende—the unseen but intensely diabolical spirit of evocation—that seizes the flamenco dancer and her courtier in a visceral exchange of artistic spontaneity.

Like the photographer whose photo isn’t seen, or the writer whose book disappears behind the story, as UX creatives, it is not so much the medium of our craft, but those who experience it with whom we are concerned. The objective of interface design is to provide just enough UI at just the right moment, and nothing more. We’re not trying to impress our users, but to empower them.

As design guru Jared Spool recently remarked in a conference keynote, “Great design is always invisible.” An expertly designed interface—one that exceeds user expectations—gets out of the way and lets the experience take center stage so the user can achieve their task unhindered. Thus, the heroes of UX are those who do their jobs so well as to craft the unseen, to hide the UI behind an unmistakably fantastic UX. Doing this consistently is the great irony of UX design.

Fostering Invisibility

Despite the irony of invisible design, staying out of the user’s way is the best thing we can do for them, and doing so consistently is best achieved by establishing a core set of design standards for common UI. “It’s not about telling designers what to do,” Todd Rosenthal, who spearheaded our standards effort at Citrix, says. “It’s about putting rocket boosters on people and helping them be successful.”

Under Todd’s direction, our team published a comprehensive design framework for the company’s enterprise software solutions. The framework includes:

  • UI patterns and sample page layouts
  • Interactive demos
  • Design assets and code
  • Guidelines for writing, branding, and iconography
  • Context, case studies, and rationale

While design standards vary in content and presentation from one brand, product, or business to another, the objective is the same: Enable teams to build consistently exceptional—thus invisible—interfaces.

The latest release of XenDesktop, the flagship Citrix product that lets you access secure Windows desktops from any device, is a great example. Even before our design framework was launched, the XenDesktop team began integrating finalized UI patterns, writing standards, and branding guidelines into their designs.

User-test results suggest the strategy worked. Once-disparate administration consoles now leverage common visual and interaction design patterns, along with standardized language and terminology, greatly simplifying the configuration workflow for system administrators. The consumer experience is more intuitive as well. End-users hardly realize they are launching a third-party application to access their Windows machines. Design standards helped make this happen.

Not Only for Designers

A common misperception about design standards is that they are only for designers. Contrary to popular belief, design standards also set up your developers, business managers, and companies for success. Consistently using proven designs creates coherency across your products. This works in the favor of your users and also contributes to the long-term success of your brand.

Even if you occasionally miss the mark on a design, as even the most revered brands sometimes do, your users will be much more likely to forgive your mistake if you’ve demonstrated over time that the experience is exceptional more often than not.

Standards also establish a shared vocabulary across development teams. No longer is the designer the sole arbiter of the language and rationale of user-centered design. By establishing design standards and making them available to everyone involved in the product development process, everyone has an equal shot at articulating what a good user experience should be.

Finally, design standards provide an unobtrusive mode of automating UX best practices into your product development workflows. By providing ready-made UI components up front, you ensure that the best possible design solutions are being used in your products. Equally important, you free up your teams to focus on the more pressing task of solving the unique and immediate UX challenges facing their products and users.

5 Tips for Setting Design Standards

When you’re ready to start building your own set of design standards, we recommend a few best practices to help move the process along. “It’s a tough nut to crack,” Todd says, “and not a lot of companies have pulled it off.” Still, there are things you can do to make it happen. Remember: Your goal is to consistently provide user experiences so great that users forget your designs are there.

1. Have a vision and stick to your guns. Reach out to your constituents early to make the case for standards, and then reiterate your vision often. Your job—which is relentlessly difficult at times— is to be a beacon of hope in the fog of user requirements, development limitations, and business priority matrices. Tenacity is key.

2. Keep it simple. Provide the fundamental nuts and bolts of good design up front so your teams can focus on disappearing the rest of the product behind the experience. Rather than focusing narrowly, build a solid baseline that is flexible enough to expand and adapt to different use cases and scenarios. You will be tempted to go down the rabbit hole of complexity, but you must resist. It’s not about prescription, but empowerment.

3. Love your critics. “If you’re not getting criticism, you’re not making real change,” Todd insists. As is true for most of what we produce as creatives, there will be as many opinions in the room about our designs as there are designers. Embrace this fact. When in doubt, think: innovation and learning happen when we’re at the edge of our comfort zone.

4. Make it easy to implement. Talk to your designers and developers early to understand what tools and technologies jibe with their workflows. Based on their input, provide flexible and re-usable assets to help limit versioning and minimize (or avoid) churn. At Citrix, using common file formats, HTML, and CSS works well in this regard. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t come off like this: "You will do it our way, no matter how inconvenient, because we say so. Plebeians!"

5. Mobile on the brain. Make sure your design framework is flexible enough to scale across the myriad devices and platforms in the wild. Whether you go native, responsive, or otherwise, think about mobile from Day One. If your applications can be accessed with a URL, they will be used on a mobile device, so start with a good mobile experience first and work outward from there.

Conclusion

Solid design standards set the stage for invisible interfaces. They put you in a much better position to consistently provide coherent user experiences and, as a result, bolster your brand identity over time. Teams are freed up to focus on the unique challenges of their products, while a whole new community of non-designers engages in the UX conversation. And while developing standards feels like a true feat of heroism at times, following best practices sets you in the right direction and ensures the medium of your craft stays quietly hidden behind the experience of your users.

These opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Citrix.

 

Image of Parinet Chameleon courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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Mike Maass does content strategy and product design at Citrix. 

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Comments

I'm sorry but creating invisible interfaces, or interfaces that stay out of a users' way doesn't rely solely on having design standards.

The reality of the digital landscape is that users are constantly interacting with different interfaces and that yours is just one of a myriad. Creating a design standard might help with consistent branding and the reinforcing of where to find some features or learnability, and remove some of the friction or noise that bad UI elements create, however creating 'invisible interfaces' is much more than that.

An invisible interface understands how users see the world - the things they want to do, what is important to them and how they perceive and understand things.
Through user research we can get an understanding of the above. These need to then be applied to the interface design and iterated with usability testing - because only when the interface perfectly matches the users expectations, terminology, mental models, needs does it really fade into the background.

Applying a set of design standards to a wireframe or concept just creates a visually consistent and aesthetically appealing interface that reflects what your company thinks users need.

Yes, I agree 100 percent. I think there's an assumption here that any framework, including design standards, must be relentlessly user-focused and then validated through testing. As you point out, there's a lot more to the UX puzzle than just standards. That said, standards can be useful in automating some of these UCD best practices into more dev/engineering-driven workflows that might not otherwise have access to UX designers. Additionally, by providing teams with user-tested and approved common UI elements up front, those teams are freed up to tackle the unique use cases associated with their products and users.

"...staying out of the user’s way is the best thing we can do for them, and doing so consistently is best achieved by establishing a core set of design standards for common UI." - this is the part of your article I have a problem with. I fully agree that design standards are an invaluable resource for development teams and help reduce the overhead of asking basic UI questions over and over, but they do not consistently achieve an invisible interface.

Or even the title of your article: "Design Standards Let the Interface Disappear Behind the Experience"... it's misleading and totally simplifies the actual UX processes required to create great experiences

Good tips! :)
I wonder how many itens were designed for the framework... :O