Giving up control might just make you design better experiences
Publishers created branded websites to accompany their print offering with varying success. More recently we saw the rise of the web native publishing brand. Now the increased size and reach of social networks has lead to web ‘superstructures’ that bridge the gap between the open web and the closed app. What does that mean for design and user experience?
The touted phrase ‘Google is your homepage’ hasn’t generated a significant effect in web design or architecture. Complex navigation hierarchies still pervade, content models are still entwined with ownerships, brands and egos, unrelated and related content maintain their silos. User Interfaces, still apparently determining success, are discussed as if destinations, places users covet — a place for the user to arrive with a task, get lost in and digitally cavort through like a laughing model skipping through a field of corn selling dandruff shampoo. But what is ‘news’? What is ‘opinion’? What is a ‘feature’? Can a ‘feature’ be ‘news’? Can ‘opinion’ also be a ‘feature’? All relevant questions that in reality none cares about beyond legacy navigational structures — certainly not now share is becoming increasingly central to most user flows.
‘The share is your homepage’ has generated the need for a myriad of animated share buttons to be present on any given web page, along with relentless calls to action to ‘share this’ or ‘follow us’. These — for the most part — bloated share buttons cramp the users experience — at best they delay load times and throw the user to a clunky API login screen before the share can happen or the comment can be added. Sharing content can become a sub-standard experience — a designer can create a glorious responsive web experience that encourages sharing, a journalist can create beautiful narratives that everyone is desperate to discuss, but at the point of share or comment this experience vanishes into a mess of frames, windows and text input fields for any chosen social network. It becomes easier to share via copy and pasting a URL into a native social media app, which on mobile becomes a slightly fraught experience of tap gestures, selection dialogues and fine finger control. This newly shared content links back to the web page from where the share was actioned from, so that glorious responsive web experience full of beautiful narratives ends up inside a user interface web view (which you have no control over the design of) linked from a timeline structure (which you have no control over the design of) inside, say, a Facebook app (which you have no control over the design of — unless you happen to work for Facebook). So what is a good user experience in this scenario? Well, logically it would make sense to remove the copy/paste actions, sign-in forms and windows and let the user access the content directly — and use that platforms native share functions to do the share process. But this of course means to the designer that the user experience and the responsive layouts they’ve worked hard to build and test are redundant in the face of a default. The default for Facebook, for Twitter, for Tumblr — the default font, the default responsive behaviour, the default layout and hierarchy, the default player style, the default minimums and maximums that each network is built upon. To the journalist it means that the long form narrative might not work on Twitter, that mid-form text might behave better on Tumblr than Facebook and an infographic might have to co-exist as a still image, a GIF and possibly a video on YouTube. But none of this matters. What matters is the user can easily read the content they wish to read and share it using a default behaviour they are comfortable with within a network they wish to actively inhabit and curate. Should we as content creators and designers be trying to remove people from the networks they inhabit to impose on them our hierarchies of content and our user flows? Should we be disrupting a users consumption and imposing new behaviours just to register a click, a visit or a metric? Can we instead create experiences within the networks the users inhabit and focus instead on engagement — on experience? Certainly Facebook think so with Instant Articles. While the media industry wrings it’s hands over the perceived benefits of increased engagement compared to the loss of control it causes them, the user at the centre of it all doesn’t care. They still want to read, comment, browse and share without having to learn anything new. This isn’t the users fault, but their default. As Nir Eyal suggests, “products that require a high degree of behaviour change are doomed to fail” and he is correct. Design isn’t always about determining new behaviours, new frameworks, or controlling hierachies.
A loss of control is central to this and designers are often those who perceive that loss the most. In this new environment there is no style guide, no discussions over hierarchy, no discussion over user flows, user interface gestures, tested button styles and menu actions. This is an environment where the product is already built and you merely inhabit it — in design terms these are unstyled pieces of content, or as Koolhaus would have it, “orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern…subsystems only without super structure”. But in this environment there is design, and it’s a design that matters. It is not a design of controlling behaviours but a design of embellishing the users experience. It’s one of imagery, movement and colour. One of pure communication within a rigid existing superstructure. A design based on the most stringent of briefs. A design that requires personality and strength to differentiate itself from the identical superstructure that surrounds it, frames it, supports it and enables it.
In a time of flat design, homogenised user flows, user interfaces and behaviours where everything faces the reality of becoming a doppelgänger, a copy or a pastiche, design now exists in the details. The crop of the image, the edit of the 15 second video, the animation that causes a communication, the simplicity of making imperceptible financial figures into a narrative that is easily understood. This is a lean design that focuses on communication and emotion, that accepts the superstructure that surrounds it but still strives to create something beautiful and useful within constantly fluctuating and strictly imposed minimums. This is a design that can really make a difference to the user, rather than building another superstructure, another waste of design effort, more junkspace. Koolhaus speaks of design as delivering results, of solving the underlying problem not just creating a surface aesthetic, “Design isn’t the veneer but the foundations beneath. Design is solving a problem at it’s core not re-imaging or re-designing”. As the behaviours and superstructures around our content become default, become broadly adopted and established, why build something on the same principals, the same behaviours, over worked with a thinly established and awkward veneer? We can embrace the superstructure yet design within it — and it’s here that real results can be found.