Yurou Zeng

I Wish I Didn’t “Know” Design

There are days I wish I was a beginner again, to have their eyes, I would give anything to see the word in an unfiltered light. In a way that’s not saturated by technicalities, by grids and rules and expectations. Even if it’s just for day, to be able to see mountains of possibility rather than just the executable molehills. To find and jot down ideas before my mind unconsciously blocks them with a “that’ll never work”.

I recently read Paul Graham’s essay, “What We Can’t Say” and I’d like to ask that as it pertains to design, what can’t we design? Why? What haven’t we thought of? And why? What are the industry and business standards in place that prevent us from thinking outside of the box, and to whose interest do they cater to? I always seem to go back to the topic of “same-ness” in web design, and that idea is also relevant here. The reason websites and product default to one style is because it works. And it’s not always a bad thing, but when we parallel that with society and think of it as sanitizing and censoring the web of its potential, the move becomes awfully bleak. Graham writes that in every age, we’re surprised by the beliefs and ideals of the past and think the present superior and correct. The same can be said of the web, while we evolved from the (chaotic) web of the past, we consider current design to be a whole lot prettier, usable and simply better than it was before. But what of the future? Will design in the future come to look down on our current interfaces? Will the move towards 3D and sound eventually make plain 2D interfaces obsolete? As Graham puts it, “how can you see the wave, when you’re the water?”. 

Bringing it back to the idea of a “beginner”, what I mean is someone who hasn’t gone through the process of developing a “designer’s eye”, who doesn’t have a set criterion tattooed in their head, judging everything they come across. The sand to our water, watching the waves shift and change and questioning the motions of the sea. Designers are given limitations all the time, and soon enough, these limitations become engrained in their process. But for new and great ideas to come, we have to step outside the bounds. How can design progress if we don’t break the rules a little?

I’ll leave with one last quote from Paul Graham: “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”

Help, all my UI designs look the same!

I’m constantly going back to the age old question of “is design art?” In my heart, and according to my definition of “art” (which in itself is a can of worms I’m trying very hard not to open) the answer is no. I had recently listened to a podcast that said “design is business” and they really sold themselves on that point. Art is a means of self expression, it contains traces of the artist, of their intentions. But design? Design is meant to sell.

This is especially true in the realm of user interface design, where usability and trends overrule creativity on any given day. I sometimes feel trapped when designing interfaces, with much of the “design process” feeling more like “copying” with every new screen. Most companies, including my current team, create design systems for the very purpose of streamlining the design process and creating cohesiveness across a platform. What this does, however, is that my works, and really the whole of the web, start to all look the same. This makes me nervous, as someone who started her design journey in a more creative and “art”-like sphere. How can I reimagine apps, websites and digital interactions in new ways while maintaining the necessary usability? Am I allowed to have fun? To experiment and reinvent the wheel when the nuances of digital products has already been established? Should I even be trying to rise up to this occasion, or are products actually better off the way they are for our user’s sake?

Maybe this problem is something that only I, a student with the barest of experience in the matter, take issue with. There are probably designers out there who’s found their balance between aesthetic and function, being able to roll out amazingly beautiful and unique products that people love to use. But until I reach that level, help! All my UI designs look the same!

I’d like more friction please!

As designers, I feel that we’re constantly trying to strive for a seamless and frictionless experience in products. That of course, is a noble goal, I mean, what user doesn’t want a smooth and non-disruptive process? We’ve already established that people have much less patience than before, and thus, less accepting of mistakes and interruptions in their flow. But I can’t help but think that sometimes, friction is good.

In the age of digital automation, things have gotten so easy I almost wish we had to work harder. Tech has slowly taken over our unconscious consciousness, making us recognize patterns and allowing us to skip over otherwise time-consuming formalities. We often breeze past fine print, text on red/green colored buttons, and digital elements that are seemingly consistent across web content. With this, users often gloss over important information and risk falling for dark UI patterns (of course, dark patterns are the fault of the company and designers who implement it, but since we know it does exist and have no way of getting rid of it, we must think of methods of prevention). 

In such cases, it might be fitting to include levels of friction in your product, especially in areas you may want your users to pay closer attention to. In a series of experiments done by Daniel Kahneman documented in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the act of making a text slightly harder to read promotes cognitive thinking, which in turn makes the content more memorable and less prone to misunderstanding (in the content of the experiment, the given text contained a series of questions. People who had to read it in a less legible format answered more questions correctly and made less mistakes).

I’m not advocating that we make it harder for users to interact with the products we make, but I think that integrating pauses and checkpoints is a practice that can enhance digital experiences as well as simply slow down our pace. Due to how used we’ve become to ads and seemingly irrelevant content, we’ve trained ourselves to very easily ignore and skip over anything we don’t care about. We should really get a break from the onslaught of digital content, and maybe with some (positive) friction, we can.

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