Formula doesn’t mean formulaic

One of the occasional criticisms hurled at user experience as a discipline is that it is simply a box–ticking accessibility exercise; that by engaging in solid research and analysis, somehow UX is the boring bitthat has to be done before real design gets a look in.

Related to this is another misconception that if a diligent user–centred design process is followed, somehow we will always end up with the same formula, the same outcome – the same design. This is part of the same myth which says that design is arrived at through inspiration alone; that ‘design’ is a noun rather than a verb; that we should ignore established best practice or patterns and instead search for true ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ (add your favourite devisive industry buzzword here).

The retort to this isn’t that UX design does not involve the use of formulae. The defence is that it is the very use of ‘formulae’ that ultimately leads to differentiation.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the Hero’s Journey. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements, a formula if you will. You can read more about it here.

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, a huge number of popular stories – be they in literature or cinema – have taken cues from the Hero’s Journey resulting in some of the most beautiful, most inspiring tales in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (a story that wears Campbell’s influence on its sleeve) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

It’s worth looking also at popular songwriting. I’m willing to bet that your favourite songs go something like verse–chorus–verse–chorus–middle 8–chorus. I’m also willing to bet that they are based around seven main chords, or variants thereof. And yet from this we get pretty much all modern popular music, and certainly some of the most emotionally resonant, moving songwriting the world has known. Even Lennon and McCartney knew the rules… albeit they stretched them more than most.

UX design is a similar: working within constraints, sometimes with familiar patterns, the unique aspects of the project – the client’s aspirations, the user needs, the business model – bring to the table elements which alter the chemistry of he process to create something if not unique, then truly effective – the most important benchmark of all.

Last year I worked on a support micro site for a minority community group. Conventional wisdom would have held that, as we were dealing with an already well–researched audience, user research would not yield too much in the way of insights. The client however was wise enough to seek validation of received wisdom and consented to a round of public workshops. One of the most valuable outcomes from these was a set of five distinct personas that the website needed to connect with and communicate to. The personas derived informed everything from navigation and wayfinding to site content and overall tone–of–voice, as well as providing themes for the associated promotional campaign.

As in music or storytelling, the basic building blocks may be limited but there are potentially infinite directions a project can take. And yes, as in those other examples, some results will be poor if a formula is relied on too heavily. What matters though is that the chosen outcome is an effective one, and one that connects with the right people.

In a changing world, where human factors consistently remain the most important elements in communication and interaction, a solid user–centred design process remains the best formula for achieving success with digital projects.

This post originally appeared on the Fathom_ blog

And then there was… iPad

I can’t offer an objective opionion of Apple’s new progeny; I’m an Apple fanboy, a design groupie and a tech non-purist.

The ability of Apple to distill the technological zeitgeist of the near future into exhilarating new product is indesputible. I remember being underwhelmed by the iPod when it arrived. I had barely a handful of mp3 files on my hard drive at the time, and still bought CDs by the dozen. Within 12 months I had an iPod and bought my last CD in 2004.

I haven’t quite succumbed to iPhone fever yet – I’m still a pay-as-you-go luddite when it comes to phones – but the iPad could well find its way into our home. As a device for the casual consumption of digital media it looks perfect to these eyes.

The gamut of reactions to the iPad have been entirely predictable. One reaction in particular I read left me staggered though. Twitter’s Alex Payne is “disturbed” by the iPad, suggesting it is the sunset of the tinkerer: “if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.” Wha? huh?

The opinions and ideas Payne trots out in his blog post are beyond ludicrous. Will Rock Band kill off real guitarists? Did the Walkman kill off DJs? Payne is completely missing the point: the iPad is not a PC replacement. It may be for some; for the low level user who are no sooner going to hustle some C++ than they are to learn karate from scratch, it will fit like a glove.

The iPad is designed for the convenient consumption of digital media, period. The user experience is likely to be, as with most Apple products, superior. The same inquisitive folk who might feel drawn to tinker with PCs will be inspired to look under the hood and create something for that platform. And guess what? For those people, there are SDK’s, PC’s, Mac and all the same tools there always have been.

To suggest that because Apple have added the iPad to their product line, innovation in the development industry has somehow been assassinated is simply inane.

Relax Alex, PCs still exist. All Apple have done is add a new member to their ‘nuclear family’ of products.