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The Power of Convention

Phil Heywood

This is the second part in a series where we'll be looking at the role design plays in creating digital experiences that have a positive impact on both business and customer. 

A phrase we're all familiar with is "Familiarity breeds contempt". Meanwhile, a mantra for product design is "Don't make me think", taken from the title of Steve Krug's excellent book. 

Together, those two phrases contradict. But when designing a digital experience intended to surprise, delight and empower people, we must balance the new with the familiar. 

Standing out from the crowd 

A common, and completely understandable, requirement is that digital should help the business cut through the noise and stand out in a crowded marketplace. If what they say and do is the same as everyone else, why should people choose them? 

However reasonable and logical this thinking may be, things quickly go astray if this requirement gets boiled down to the simple statement: "We need to be different." 

What does this apply to, exactly, and how does this relate to how the experience guides and influences people to complete critical tasks? Can the desire to be different get in the way of this? 

You put your left foot in? 

In our last instalment, we noted how supercars make their drivers want to go fast as a by product of their design, rather than as an explicit function of it. If you're a skilled driver, on a suitable track and in the right conditions, why wouldn't you? 

What if, though, the designers of that car decided to swap the car's pedals around? Accelerator on the left, clutch in the middle and brake on the right. It would be different, right? No other car does this, which would put it in a class of its own. 

But on the basis of ease and safety of operation it would be terrible as it goes against what every driver is used to, and would require a great deal of concentration for just the basic functions of moving and stopping. Even with its unique design, why would anybody buy it if it was both difficult and dangerous to drive? 

Of course, this is an extreme (and highly unlikely) example. But it goes to show how powerful convention is. Does the brake pedal really have to be to the left of the accelerator? Probably not, but it's what people are used to, and have come to expect when they get into any car. 

Leaning on convention: the 80-20 rule 

Digital design is rarely, if ever, as life-or-death important as car design, but this principle applies all the same. 

Over the last couple of decades, as access to the internet has grown from an enthusiast's niche to a basic need for most of us, we've become accustomed to the way certain things work. For example, in a recent set of user interviews, we saw that people tend to expect common options like Search and Contact Us to be at the top right of the page. If we were to move them to the bottom left, it would lead to confusion or the assumption that they just don't exist on that site. 

Web pages don't have to be designed this way; the mid-to late 90s was like the Precambrian Era, with all sorts of different layouts and metaphors being tried with the successful ones passing into the collective conscience, and the rest consigned to history. Remember splash screens? 

But over the years, patterns have emerged and conventions established. Just like the brake being in the middle, the search icon is a magnifying glass in the top right, links tend to be underlined and buttons usually look at least somewhat button-shaped. 

Maybe 80% of a given website shares its DNA with millions of other websites, and that's OK. Nobody would want to have to read an operator's manual before venturing onto a new website for the first time. Far from familiarity breeding contempt, it allows us not to think so much. 

So what's the remaining 20% for? 

Being different in all the right ways 

Identifying those aspects of a design that allow us to leverage convention can give us some important advantages: 

  1. We can create a functional design that we know will meet baseline usability standards because we've used them before and we know they work. 
  2. Time to market is reduced because of the headstart leveraging conventions can give us. 
  3. We can spend more time and budget experimenting with designs that are tailor made to deliver our outcomes. 

If 80% of a website can be conventional, the remaining 20% allows us to be impactful and innovative. Once the fundamental underpinnings of the user experience (e.g. search, navigation, wayfinding, signposting etc) are in place, we're at liberty to find ways to delight our customers, even creating experiences that really are different. 

Coming up 

Everybody wants to innovate, but what does that really mean, and how can we stay focused on the outcomes we're trying to achieve, even when pushing the boundaries? 

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