“Everything we know is within the terminology of the concepts of being and not being, many and single, true and untrue. We always think in terms of opposites.”
When designing a user experience, it’s easy to think of the process in terms of opposites—emotion and logic, art and science, the seen and unseen. This follows the inescapable need we humans have to categorize our experience of the universe into opposing forces: light and dark, good and evil, up and down, etc., ad infinitum.
This universal concept is known by many names: Dualism, the Polarity Principle, yin-yang, etc., and is a central theme of great religions, ancient myths and enduring philosophical traditions alike. According to its proponents, this duality—or, more precisely, our inability to simultaneously experience these pairs of opposites and that which transcends them—is the source of much pain and suffering in the world.
But, grasshopper, I digress. How does one find web design bliss between pairs of opposites?
Information architecture is, of course, primarily concerned with a system’s underlying organization and structure. It relies on the scientific method to establish heuristics, conventions and best practices for designing complex information systems. When done properly, information architecture is demonstrably objective and essentially invisible to the user.
But there’s another aspect of the user experience that is largely subjective, more mercurial. The “look and feel”—a composite of visual design and messaging—is information architecture’s whimsical counterpart. It’s through the look and feel that an emotional connection with the user is made. It’s the prism through which the information architecture is experienced,and it has to be both engaging and persuasive.
Obviously, these two disciplines exhibit all the attributes of classic duality; they satisfy disparate needs and appear, on the surface, to be conflicting. In fact, they are parts of the same thing—a continuum with polar extremes. Each needs the other to exist and indeed a little of “the other” exists within each.
Finding the right balance between the two can be tricky. Go too far in one direction and your design becomes static and staid, “boring”. At the other extreme, usability can suffer if conventions and best practices are sacrificed on the alter of “cool.”
The two functions are often performed by different team members, but good on you if you’ve found a UX designer who can effortlessly traverse the gates between these worlds. Such folk are the shamans of the UX world—golden, somewhat mysterious and exceedingly rare.
So, the short answer to finding your web design bliss lies first in understanding this conflicted and often stormy relationship and then recognizing that your best work will achieve a unity of form and function.
If that notion’s too abstract (or obvious) for you, here’s a very simple but effective technique you can use to produce designs your clients will love, every time—or at least reduce the number of design “options” and iterations.
Remember how I said the “look and feel” aspect of design was more subjective? How on earth can one get inside the client’s head to know how they’ll respond to a given design? Sometimes clients have a hard time articulating what they want (sometimes what they want is not what they need, but that’s a topic for another day). Sometimes, they don’t even know what they want, or assume a “I’ll know it when I see it” posture—which is the worst possible place for a designer to be.
To greatly minimize this risk, simply ask the client questions around their aesthetic preferences using—you guessed it!—pairs of opposites. Prepare a simple survey asking them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, their “look and feel” preferences. The pairs you select may vary from client to client, but some obvious candidates are:
After collecting the survey responses, review them as a starting point for a conversation with the client about aesthetic concerns and expectations. Use the opportunity to uncover additional preferences and ”mandatories”, all of which should inform your design process.
Using these simple techniques, we’ve been able to save our clients both time and money by eliminating unnecessary and wasteful design options and iterations. Time and again—and with very few exceptions—we are able to get enthusiastic homepage design approvals from happy clients when showing only one well-conceived design option (and no interior pages).
This is how we found enlightenment—and continue to eliminate a lot of web design headaches. When seeking inspiration, remember that all things in the field of time are pairs of opposites. Defining the appropriate ones for your client—and where their brand “lives” between them—can help you find your web design bliss.