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I Want to Break Free

by Thomas Jaffe
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Why It’s Time to Leave UX Laws Behind

The scientists working away in the 1960s had no idea their proto internet would live on long after the Cold War which gave birth to it. In those early days of the Web, the goal was to create an alternate way for government leaders to communicate with each other. But by the 1980s, once computer scientist Vinton Cerf had nailed down how to connect computers all over the world, when it came to innovation the sky was the limit.

Browsers and search engines were invented. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates built their empires. And Millennials came of technological age. For they’ve been the ones who’ve turned the Internet’s limitless landscape into a tool for gathering information, building community, entertainment and, most importantly, commerce. Trouble is, as user experience patterns were refined, passed from brand to brand, from person to person, the Internet’s become too designy and overly scientific. These days, templates and modular tools rule; curiosity and creativity have fallen by the wayside. Wix, Squarespace, Shopify and the like dominate the landscape with their modular, atomic design and UX principles. Designs are built block by block, page by page — hero, call to action, product feature, emotional hook and the like. It’s same old same old, over and over. Snore.

The one-size-fits-all model is a great starting point for a new entrepreneur with limited design or development resources. But for designers, these platforms opened the door for a generation reliant on automation. The formula isn’t flawed — but the dependency on it is.

The more’s the pity, too, because by nature the Internet can be a weird, wonderful place. That is, if we let it be. And that’s what Gen-Zers see, breaking free from the reigns of UX on platforms like TikTok. If only we could close the book on UX Laws and get back to the spirit of exploration and experimentation that shaped the Web early on, then the possibilities would be endless.

The plain fact is, nothing changes if nothing ever changes. Innovation? If trailblazers only walked down well-worn paths, forget it. When it comes to the digital landscape, nobody’s going to learn a new digital experience if all you keep giving them is one that prioritizes usability over creative thinking. Of course, websites and applications must be easy and intuitive to navigate. Data, logic and psychology are key to shaping the user journey. Whether it’s choosing a new pair of glasses or sending someone flowers, users arrive at a site with a goal in mind, and the easier it is for them to complete that goal, the more usable the site is considered.

In order to achieve that, though, designers stay laser focused on meeting the strict criteria dictated by UX Laws. Take, for instance, Brad Frost and his Atomic Design System. No question it’s a great resource for design systems thinking. Still, is his restrictive UX approach right for everyone? Can it, in fact, be used as a launching pad for new directions? Testing, iterating, and inclusive design processes may be essential, but if we want to really benefit users we must think of them as people, not lab mice. Our lives are more than set a goal — meet a goal — get reward — repeat.

Moreover, while we’re being led into that sea of repetitious sameness, who’s benefitting? Certainly not users, who are being psychologically tricked into completing a brand’s goal. Consider that the innovative UX Laws adhered to by millennials are precisely what paved the way for Dark Patterns — essentially UX and UI tricks that designers and brands intentionally play to convince users to complete an action they wouldn’t have otherwise completed. We’re talking about forced subscriptions, intentionally misguiding language, “free” trials, and hidden costs that require extra effort for the user to avoid.

But then there are the brands that think outside of the templated box. They look to creativity as how to build provocative experiences that inspire us to engage in a shared goal. At ThoughtMatter, we believe brands create lasting connections with their audience when the relationship is built on trust and honesty. People enter relationships with brands that feel authentic, not brands looking to trick them at every turn.

If I went to a store and bought a bottle of sunscreen, only to find out that I then would be charged for a new bottle of sunscreen every month, I’d be pretty unhappy. And I’d be even unhappier if I had to jump through all sorts of hoops to stop being charged. Behind those annoying charges? Dark patterns. Because they’ve proven so powerful at driving short-term revenue, it’s why many templates and stores utilize them. Here’s the rub, though. Anytime consumers have to work harder to cancel that recurring charge than to purchase something, sooner or later the sheer aggravation of it all could wind up turning them off.

Here’s where UI/UX designers can play a vital role so things don’t even get that far. I believe it’s their responsibility to make the Internet less dark. Take the power away from the brands and give it back to the consumers in ways that delight them and are trap-free. Step away from the sticky notes. Ditch the laws of UX. Instead, start from scratch. Create symbiotic experiences that are mutually beneficial to brands and the people who support them; experiences that are compelling and desirable for extended visits. Take a page from TikTok and break free from the UX ideologies that millennials have clung to so hard.

TikTok is the digital equivalent of wandering through an overgrown forest. There, algorithms lead users through the content. Compare that to the millennial-built digital world of meticulously placed navigation tools we have now — a well-paved path through a manicured garden, complete with signage, a map at every corner, and a brightly lit gift shop. I’m not asking designers to use algorithms as their guiding force, but perhaps there’s a way to apply this sort of thinking to branded experiences. When it comes to new designs, build upon the idea of user freedom that TikTok has been so successful with.

ThoughtMatter has embraced a sense of wonder and a freedom of exploration on projects like the GirlForward annual report, For the People, and the Photography 2020 Compendium. As a studio we are questioning it all and leaving the confines of UX Laws behind. We’re making room to feel comfortable in uncertainty; rewarding exploration when it comes to aligning our digital and brand thinking.

The Internet wouldn’t exist if those scientists in the Sixties had stayed within their comfort zone. So as we approach the halfway mark of 2021, how are you going to be part of web design’s next chapter? Are you going to stick to the same old modules and templates, or are you going to break free and leave the laws of UX behind?

post authorThomas Jaffe

Thomas Jaffe, Thomas Jaffe founded ThoughtMatter to build on the counter-intuitive links between business and the fine arts. Before establishing the firm, he was a leading business journalist who reported on management while acquiring and managing a major art collection. Recognizing how businesses could benefit from infusing their overall vision with the artist's creativity and passion, Tom built ThoughtMatter to provide this enhanced vision to help management conquer the challenges facing brands in today's economy. He similarly believes cultural organizations must marry their artistic worldview with rapidly evolving best business practices to reach today's audiences effectively. He has developed ThoughtMatter to serve both sectors, staffing the studio on both the creative and business sides with skilled, disciplined professionals who view changing markets with an artist's eye and a curator's instinct for making connections between all things creative.

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Ideas In Brief
  • In today’s frenetic technological age, there is less room for creativity and the one-size-fits-all approach often prevails when it comes to design.
  • Although automation has numerous benefits, it also over-relies on UX laws and decreases the eagerness to experiment. This, in turn, hinders innovation and promotes a restrictive UX approach that seeks to “trap” users.
  • UX/UI specialists have the power to reshift the focus in the current UX trends to foster creativity and give users more freedom.

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