UX, UI Patterns & The Quality without a Name

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This article is the first of a series, in which we will be looking at UX/UI Patterns and their origins. We will go over how these patterns are providing UI developers & designers frameworks and guidelines to create the best possible experiences for users. UX changes on a yearly basis, what was useful then is no longer and what was deemed antiquated is suddenly current again. It is thus good to get an idea of where UX and UI Patterns have come from and what they are trying to achieve for users, designers and developers alike.

User experience has its origins in the late 1940s, an off shoot of ergonomics and Human factors design field. Its main goal has been to understand and innovate on the interaction between humans, machines and context of the user’s experience. The term “User Experience” is claimed to have been coined by Donald Norman from Apple in the early 1990s. User experience design is an umbrella term which covers a number of user related field these days, it includes but is not limited to user interface design, interaction design, information architecture and user research.

Other types of user experience do exist in other fields, outside those to do with machines or computers. Consider filmmaking, wherein filmmakers expressly show the audience specific scenes or moments to illicit a specific emotional or physical response. If we look to advertising we can see the similar pattern of showing the consumer an advert and attempting to elicit a response to purchase. UX also tries to illicit a response in interaction or emotion from users, hoping they engage with a website, app or programme in a more meaningful manner.

Good UX has been described as “The Quality without a Name”, a phrase coined by Christopher Alexander an architect who wrote a series of books about good practice in construction and building techniques. The Quality without a Name is described by Alexander as “Alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, eternal –  the quality is related to yet is none of these things.” Now you may ask why would an architect from the 1970s, write about UX? Well it’s not so much that he wrote expressly about UX but that it has been borrowed like many other ideas and guidelines from other fields. Specifically Alexander’s patterns and ideas were borrowed by the “Gang of Four”, Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, the four authors of software engineering book by the name of “Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software”. One of the first books to recognise patterns, discuss them and show examples of how they were implemented.

It is these initial attempts and focus on identifying patterns that have encouraged much growth in the field of UX design. Many others have since written about UI or UX and the identifiable patterns driving the field further still.

Looking back we can see the origins of UX echo the the same message of the modern theories of UX. Striving to ensure a quality that is unmistakably engaging and appreciated by users. Patterns can help designers reach this quality in their systems. These patterns can help solve many commonly recurring design problems. Many types of patterns exist some focus mainly on User Interfaces design while others are based on persuading the user to engage or act.

An example of a UI pattern is a “Password Strength Meter”, this UI pattern is intended to solve the problem of security vulnerability on the users side. Typical users working on the modern web, have to remember many passwords. Users will be inclined to go with only one or two passwords because simply it’s just easier to remember two passwords versus a hundred – one for each new site they visit. The user may be inclined to pick easy to remember passwords, which in turn may be easy to crack. The password strength meter pattern thus provides feedback to the user on the strength of the users password, allowing them to understand any potential risk they may have by using a simple password. It also allows for system verification which can force users to set more complex and difficult to decipher passwords. The pattern thus works to ensure the users data and information is kept secure. This is just one example related to security, but we can already see how this pattern of UX and UI design can be beneficial to solve common design problems.

Looking now to an example of a “Persuasive Design Pattern”, namely “Loss Aversion”, this pattern identifies the users habits with regards to gain or loss related decision making. Its usage is common when a decision can be framed as a gain or loss, or when attempting to motivate users to start engaging or to continue engaging. In essence the pattern asks the user a question, and states conditions based on their decision i.e. “Renew your subscription now and save 50%”, with the loss being should they renew their subscription later they pay full price but they losing their access to the subscribed platform.

It becomes fairly obvious that patterns can be of great use in solving common issues with UX design. In the coming weeks we will be looking deeper into specific patterns and how we use them to come up with UX design solutions.

Further Reading

Should you like to read more about UX and UI patterns have a look over the following sites for more information and examples.

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