There’s no doubt that digital design has grown in leaps and bounds over the last five years, and service design even more so. The merging of user experience, customer experience, interaction design, and creative technology has contributed to the greater good, and helped form robust rules, patterns, and a user interface language that people have come to recognize. Yet I can’t help feeling that something has died along the way.

Fire up your Mac, tablet, or mobile device and you’re faced not only with similar apps promising to offer the same service, but also the same interaction paradigms and UI kits downloaded from the Internet. Why is this? Is it because of laziness, pressure from the client to deliver, or an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality? It’s probably all or some of these factors at different points, but perhaps the main reason we’re seeing the same thing everywhere is that we don’t always give users the credit they deserve, especially when it comes to finding their way around a UI.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making it easier for the user—not quite Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think,” but no site or digital service should be so ambiguous that nobody knows how to use it. Instead, it should make the user think just enough to keep them engaged. Delight can come not just from the content, but also how it is displayed and navigated.

A good example of how we should all be thinking is Clear, a to-do list app with no content apart from what the user decides to type in. No pictures. No video. Just lists, based solely on the use of gestures and haptic feedback; swipe right to add an item or left to clear, pull down to add an item, pinch apart two items to insert an item in between, pinch together to close the current list and view all lists. The app doesn’t even entertain buttons or navigation in the UI sense, yet it’s still easy to use and has personality. It uses very little and delivers a lot. As humans we love getting something right, especially if we’ve found it ourselves.

Apps like Clear show us that the marriage of UI design and interaction design will set the world alight. We don’t need to choose one over the other. It’s time to start pushing the limits of learned interaction patterns, paradigms, and visual language and trust the user to embrace new UI experiences. If it doesn’t fit, change it. If it doesn’t exist, invent it. And don’t copy for the sake of copying. Just make sure you remember your craft, and keep it simple enough that users can learn.

According to Constance Hale, “Shakespeare coined new words when he needed—or merely wanted—them.” He didn’t settle for words that didn’t do the job. Instead, he created new ones, ones that tested the understanding of his listeners, ones that would need to be accepted and learned, “swagger” and “rant” being two of my favorites.

As designers we should see ourselves as Shakespeare, challenging and pushing the digital language, and encouraging interaction designers and visual designers to become “star crossed lovers.” Don’t be frightened of making people learn just a little, it’s what keeps our curiosity alive.


Image of asteroid collision courtesy Shutterstock.

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I wholeheartedly agree with this, in spirit. In reality, I'm curious how this could become an anthem within a studio environment. It seems that in the "business" of design, there are inherent constraints against this kind of thinking or approach. If you have a big brand client, chances are that they understandably have too many moving parts to allow designers to change things up. This has been as specific as "no, we can't have that element on the screen because it's not in our legacy database." If not for technical or business constraints, our typical audience is not one of compatriot designers, but of clients who spend their time in another specialty. If an agency were to have a big global To-Do List client (hypothetically), I bet that 90% of the time we would never get past the first round of wireframes if they did not see a check box on the screen.

Circling back with how I started, let me say that I agree and hope that design can start pushing limits and breaking out of old constraints, but I can't help feeling dismayed at the reality that this kind of innovation only happens at home / on pet projects / advising a tiny little startup.