Consistency gets a bad rap. A suggestion for consistency might be paired with other messages that are familiar to you as a UX designer:
- “Stick to the toolkit”
- “We don’t have time to build new controls”
- “Don’t reinvent the wheel”
Yet as a whole, consistency is an overlooked aspect of good design. While it’s fun to explore new ways of doing things (that’s why many of us chose this profession), style for its own sake can have consequences. This is not a call to abandon creativity or blindly follow all existing conventions, rather for many projects, consider whether there are existing patterns or analogous patterns — these exist for a reason.
I have found consistency to be vastly underrated. Here’s some of the benefits:
1: Consistent controls are easier to build
For designers, it’s easy to feel removed from the implementation process. We work closely with product managers and researchers, create assets and hand them off to the development team.
But the team that ends up building the control has to adjust their workload to every additional change that is outside their set of controls.
One way to think about possible design choices are in 3 categories:
- Re-used—components that can be used multiple times in your application
- Borrowed — components from existing frameworks/libraries
- New — starting from scratch
Just as there are components in design, engineers often use certain frameworks or libraries to make your designs come to life. By leveraging re-usable or borrowed elements from existing UX frameworks, developers are often able to build things easier and faster.
Takeaway: Reusable or borrowed controls make for speedy implementation.
2: Consistency often aligns with usability
Understandable and efficient systems are important bedrocks for usable design. What makes something is understandable often is a question of whether it aligns with our expectations — from the placement of controls or the feedback we receive from completing certain actions.
Inconsistency is jarring and harms the aesthetic appeal of a product. It forces users to relearn and get familiar with a new system. Change is hard. There’s often noticeable dips in product happiness whenever change is introduced, even if it provides more functionality.
Designers must assess whether a change adds more value than it takes away by disrupting an existing workflow.
Icons are one example of where inconsistency causes user confusion. Consider the share icon — which one is correct? How can users learn to recognise what icon actually means share?
Design is meant to fulfill a need
Breaking down the walls between people, products, process will allow for better outcomes. Product design alone isn’t enough. You may have great people but terrible process. You might have beautiful UI and illustrations but fail to understand who you’re designing for.
One humorous example is shown below where one designer attempted to combine all of the unexpected patterns into one.
Breaking form design patterns, randomising the order of buttons are among the intentional poor choices for this web form. Joking aside — it surfaces some real issues for even simple choices like button placement. We have grown accustomed to buttons and actions in a certain order. Even changing one of them can cause frustration and inadvertent mistakes.
Takeaway: For usable products, align a product to a user’s needs and context rather than choosing a novel path.
3: Patterns exist because it has worked before*
New and better is not always well received. People don’t want to relearn things and change of habits/behaviors is not always welcome.
For the most part, patterns exist and become patterns because they have been proven to work in the real world (not just in a user research study under controlled environments).
Takeaway: While patterns aren’t foolproof, there are interesting insights from studying why certain patterns work while others do not.
*Note: Sometimes established patterns can cause problems.
When in doubt, start with the user need. Find out who you’re designing for, what value they can derive from your product and build upon this knowledge over time.
Stay close to the customer by taking their feedback seriously; know that it’s a low bar for someone to tell you something is wrong. Understanding and empathizing with people is a never-ending task.
Understanding why something works or doesn’t work can help you communicate your design decisions. Expectations come before understandability; consistency is a powerful way to make sure your products are usable and intuitive.
This article originally appeared on Prototypr.io
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