September 27, 2011

Designing with a Rubber Stamp Doesn't Work

"Fred, our app is everywhere and not one single platform is the same, aside from our icon." That's a quote verbatim I get from time to time. My client in this case is expressing a need that he would like to have the app the same everywhere. It reminds me of a rubber stamp; I have a design and I duplicate it everywhere. This is a tempting approach to save cost because we think it's the way to go, but it doesn't work. We all know it doesn't work that way to a certain degree - clients included - still what is the root cause of this kind of comment?

Why Rubber Stamping?

Getting an application to work on the web, on the mobile, on the TV etc. is very expensive. So my reflex to bring my costs down could be to apply one design for all.

There is another more insidious reason and this is that sometimes we don't know what we know.  Simply put, there are things we're unconsciously competent about and this is one of them. We all know a web application doesn't go about performing the same task that a native mobile, or even a web mobile one would. Yet often when creating applications, the first thing I see people doing is trying to replicate the exact same task the same way. That's what I call being unconsciously competent about something - we intrinsically know the user model for the web is different from the mobile, yet we don't take that into account. It's like we keep forgetting to embrace the differences in the user model and the result is a software product that doesn't deliver on an experience that users will be expecting and ultimately it will not deliver on the business goals either. 

At a high level, two things I work hard at keeping front and center in design activities:  the mental model the user is in when using the said product, and the gaps the product is to address. 

Mental Models

An example of mental models to account for with users is how they are used to use the platform my product is to run on. The web metaphor of usage for a user is not the same as the mobile or desktop metaphor. So in the web we've gotten used to the back and forward button. Still it's very important to help the user find anchor points in my web application so that he's never lost, so bread crumbs are a visual indicator used sometimes to help with that. In mobile I still need to help orient the user, but I won't do it the same way because it's possible in the mobile application to imply a sequence from its visual language. Another expression for mental models is context of use. The two applications need to help orient the user, but because my user is in a different mental model imposed by the platforms, it means I must be aware of those differences to deliver a compelling user experience.

Mental models encompass a lot of things. It can be whether or not my user is standing up when using my app or sitting down; it will make for different expectations on the user's part. Rubber stamp design is not putting the user at the center of my design by being aware that their mental models are a critical aspect of the experience my software will deliver. 

Going Back to the Gap the Product is to Address

It's one aspect of my customer's overall business goals. My customers all want to make money, plain and simple, and more of it. How the software I'm working with is to go about meeting that goal is highly dependant on the gap the product is meant to address. The platforms on which the product is to run are only an ingredient of the overall business recipe. The web application might be the main use case. The mobile is there to supplement the experience when the full web experience is not available to my user. Mobile could also very well augment the experience of my main use case. 

The gap I'm designing to fix is another reason why rubber stamp design is no good. Settling for the same design on all platforms would not enrich the experience to capitalize on opportunities. 

Wrapping Up

Rubber stamp design doesn't work because it doesn't embrace the user models. It doesn't work because by not embracing the user models, I might not even fully cover the business gap I'm trying to address in the first place. In short, we all need to strive to become consciously competent about mental models our users are working under in conjunction with the business goals in order to create an experience that will encompass both. Only then do we deliver a product of great value to the users and the customer - a product of desire. 

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