Gimmicks and patterns in interface design

Launching an app with distinctive interface features can work out incredibly well. Path did this last week and has reaped the rewards of great design.

It’s a competitive advantage over similar products in the space. Competitive advantages need to be sustainable over time. Everything that was once a delightful UI element, inevitably takes one of two paths. Let’s talk about how that happens.

New ideas present themselves

Path’s new animated pop out menu is gorgeous, playful, fun, distinctive. Everything you could hope for. It will be copied. Already Levey Zhu has provided sample iOS code on Github for implementing your own, and Victor Coulon did an excellent job implementing the menu in CSS3. Of course re-using this UI element outside of mobile could be tricky; last I checked users don’t hover their thumb over the bottom left hand corner of a web app while using it.

Some become table stakes

As features are copied more and more, they end up at a crossroads. Successful features go on to become pseudo-standards. 37Signals’ distinctive Submit or Cancel, Pull-to-Refresh on the iPhone, and more recently the hidden right swipe menu is becoming common-place on iOS applications, replacing the dark bottom bar (which is stock iOS control)

Winning ideas eventually become table stakes. Patterns. Expected behaviours. In UI terms, this means that your clever element gets over used, and you lose something that made you unique. That’s not so bad, but to survive you’ll need more than clever UI techniques.

In business terms, competing on table stakes is a non-runner. A few years ago being “easy to use” was somewhat unique. Now it would be foolish to launch an app without a great interface. Before “easy to use” was hip simply being “web-based” was a real advantage. “No software to install” they’d boast, “Access your data from anywhere”.

A simple test: Take your value proposition, and swap your competitors name in there. If everything you claim is something they can claim, then you’re competing on table stakes.

Others suffer from overuse and abuse

Gamification, points, and badges were once heralded as a saviour to those with incomplete user data. Tell us your mothers maiden name and we’ll give you the “YO Momma! Badge”. You completed 30 surveys for us? Have a pet squirrel. 20 more and you get the “Survey Badge”. These days it’s something that people like to criticise and ridicule. Somewhere there was the gem of a good idea, but it was taken far too far, far too often, leading to cries of Gamification is Bullshit.

Nurturing an idea

Everything that’s good for something is bad for something else. Consistent misuse of something, whether it’s a button, badge, approach, or style will inevitably lead to it being labeled a fad. A worthless trend. When creating a pattern, it’s as important to specify what it’s bad for as it is to specify what it’s good for. This may be difficult because you want your idea to spread, but not spread so badly that it’s meaningless.

You see a corollary in skill sets and job titles. If everyone starts claiming proficiency in a new area, the area itself quickly loses respect. You can see fields such as user experience design or content strategy struggle with this balance. On one hand a large number of practitioners is desirable for credibility, but when it’s too large it becomes a meaningless term that everyone claims. It’s tricky to be welcoming but selective, without being criticised as elite or exclusive.

The long game

To make a lasting impression an idea shouldn’t be fashionable or experience flash in the pan popularity. Fashion is a sales technique to encourage regular purchases. Fashion convinces you that you can’t wear that dress, those jeans, or use that iPhone.

Good long-term ideas don’t need to re-package themselves every few months to get new customers. Useful beats fashionable every day of the week.

So before we all rush to grab the newest UI element, or pitch our app based on the latest buzzwords, or change our job titles to whatever’s being headhunted, let’s ask ourselves:

  • Does this make sense for our current situation, or are we just copying what’s hot?
  • Are we making the mistake of competing on what everyone else is doing (i.e. table stakes)
  • Can we say where this approach or technique is a seriously bad idea?
  • Is there a long term idea behind this, or is it a fad or a gimmick?