SaaS Customer Success Blog

Why We Have (and Don't Break) Design Standards in Software and Real Life

push-pull-paddleI don't know a lot about design, but I do know the feeling I get when I expect something to work a certain way, and it doesn't.

Here are two examples when I've felt that confusion recently:

  1. Pull handles on a push door
  2. Links I click in a browser not changing color after clicking

In #1, pull handles are the wrong affordance. Handles mean pull - we're trained to think this, and it's a standard - so it's confusing when a handle (a "pull" affordance) should be not used to pull. It's even more confusing in the case of a binary option - you either push or pull a door, so you think the handle always means pull...there's no way the handle means pull, turn, or spin. So when I try to pull the door open for someone else and step out of the way, I really get goofed up when I then have to shuffle back, the other person has to move, and we do a little dance that we could have avoided had the design been up to the standard.

In #2, breaking the design norm of color-changing link post-click isn't really that bad, on the surface. The link still works, and I can still click it. The thing that's missing is that whoever broke the design norm doesn't understand that people create habits around standards and norms like this. Perhaps each morning, you go through your emails and click links that are interesting. If the link color doesn't change, you're more likely to repeat that action and waste time. Therefore, don't break the norm.

People Form Behavioral Patterns Around Norms, Whether You Want Them To Or Not

The common thread in both issues - when we humans form behavioral patterns around standard design patterns - should be front of mind to those who design objects and experiences. When designers and engineers fail to make decisions in line with the norm and break standard patterns, it's almost always the case that everyone loses: the product is less effective, and the users don't like it. In an effort to create beautiful, usable, and (dare I say) profitable experiences, no one wins.

So why do we try to re-invent design pattern instead of following the norm? I could chalk another one up to natural hubris, but I'd really love to know the answer to the next time someone tries to re-invent the pick list experience, or the door handle, or the hyperlink. For every 10,000 new design mode created for old methods, we'd be lucky to have even 1 create marginal positive utility.

google contact chicklet

P.S. This post brought to you by issue #2 in Google's new contact chicklets (right)

Links now don't change color after being clicked. With obfuscated/short URIs, this is kind of a pain. Seriously, I've clicked Andrew's link to the right probably 5+ times just becuase I can't tell if I already have.


Topics: user experience design