Consistency is boring. Creating designs to fit cookie cutter patterns is not very fun. Designing for consistency is perhaps the least glamorous aspect of design. Yet consistency is one of the more important principles when creating interactive systems, that is easy to ignore.
Don’t get me wrong. Being creative and “pushing the envelope” is important. Thinking beyond narrow parameters can lead product teams in new directions which can be incredibly valuable for growth. But there’s also a time and place for that kind of work, and there are times when things should be reeled in and made more consistent.
But why? What value does consistency offer? I will explore those types of questions, and more! Read on!
What is consistency, really?
To begin, it is important to first come to some understanding of what consistency means.
Famed usability expert Jakob Nielsen writes about consistency in his “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design”.
Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
This is a good start. But in this text Mr. Nielsen is only focused on the content and interactions, and seems to omit the value of visual consistency. Most often, the most egregious violations of consistency rules that I have seen were when designers violate their own visual design standards and patterns to be more creative, and in turn create inconsistencies that make content and interactions confusing.
In another article, Bruce Tognazzini writes much more on consistency in his “First Principles of Interaction Design (Revised & Expanded)”.
A visual designer should establish a purposeful & well thought-through visual language, shaped by usability testing. User behaviors should be fully transferable throughout the product.
There is much more than just principles for consistency on that post (and it’s well worth a read), but this was his segment on visual design.
In essence, as designers, every time we sit down to design something new, we’re not just making what should be an appealing page layout. We are also creating and establishing rules for how an interface handles certain kinds of information.
If we later decide to create newer work that subverts our own standards and patterns, we must have a defensible rationale to support the new interface. Why? Because people will learn to use our products based on the standards and patterns that we have established, whether it has been founded on good UX principles or not.
In the end, establishing consistency helps you design effective systems, and as unexciting as a creative exercise as it may be, designing for consistency is important!
Why is consistency important?
Going back to Nielsen, users shouldn’t have to wonder whether the same things mean different things, or whether different things mean the same things. So really, for things that look the same (or look similar), people will assume that they are the same.
A fairly recent article describes the human mind as “the best pattern-recognition machines” in the world (though the author questions for how much longer).
Quite simply, humans are amazing pattern-recognition machines. They have the ability to recognize many different types of patterns – and then transform these “recursive probabalistic fractals” into concrete, actionable steps.
Author Kevin Ashton writes about the expert’s “selective attention” as the underlying principle behind pattern-recognition and efficient cognition.
No. Experts do not think less. They think more efficiently. The practiced brain eliminates poor solutions before they reach the conscious mind.
We are keenly attuned to identifying and understanding patterns. It is probably what helped us survive and thrive way back in the early history of human civilization, and we still carry these traits with us today. It is this ability to identify and recognize patterns that helps us learn and understand.
On a UX with good consistency, the user will spend a reasonable amount of time learning the interface and once they learn it, the use of the interface controls can become automatic or, at the least, require only a small amount of active thinking. In the study of the human use of tools, this effect is understood as a tool becoming “transparent to the task.”
— From the ICS blog, The Most Important Reason for Consistency in the Design of a UX
To put it another way, effective systems allow users to anticipate how they work. Being able to correctly anticipate how a system works and what it will do next goes a long way to afford users control and freedom. When users feel they have control and freedom over a product, it creates a feeling of delight! When users enjoy using a product, it is more likely that they will keep using it, and tell other people about it!
Let’s get one thing clear. Slavishly following conventions is not the message I want to instill in this section. By all means, if a feature requires a new interface, it is up to you and your team to find the right way to create it (remember, defensible rationales are important here). But always keep in mind that with any application, systemic rules exist, and violating those rules can increase the “cognitive load” and make the user exert more effort to complete a task.
Who owns consistency?
It’s one thing to understand that consistency is important. It is quite another thing to actually ensure it is maintained. So who should be responsible for this? The simple cop out answer is that everyone should play a role in maintaining consistency in your product (this is also known as ‘teamwork’ :P). However, it should fall to the designers to be the first mover on ensuring that UI designs follow “platform conventions”. Meaning, a design team should not wait for the engineering team to raise an issue about consistency before taking any type of action.
We are responsible for what we create, and it is up to us to own that responsibility and ensure that we are always putting out the best work possible, which includes consistency checks.
That said, it is always a good idea to seek outside input. Especially when you’re working in a large organization, open communication across teams is the best line of defense to ensure that consistency is maintained.
Another problem that frequently comes up is the decisions that get made in the short-term simply to get something out quickly that violate your own product’s rules of consistency. This happens all the time, in every sized company, and there’s no getting around it. In an ideal scenario, everyone you work with would have the user’s best interests in mind, and make decisions about things accordingly. This is not really what happens in reality. It is changing, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
But what should a designer do in this situation? You probably cannot change the outcome of the meeting, and these short-term decisions have a way of lingering around, creating long-term problems.
The first thing to remember here is that every decision always comes with tradeoffs, whether they come from the design team or not. It is inevitable. But regardless of where the decision came from, we as designers should make all efforts to help ensure consistency.
How should we ensure consistency?
It is far more than just creating style guides. Simply just defining some UI rules and emailing them around is not enough. Once you’ve defined those rules, you must ensure that those rules are also being observed. A simple way to do that is to define the UI styles using frameworks (like Bootstrap), which helps the development teams stay consistent without having to do all the work themselves.
However, in another sense, your style guides should be more than just a basic set of display rules for people to follow. As we already know, consistent interfaces are more than just things that look the same. As Nielsen already pointed out, things that look the same should also behave the same. So along with your visual design rules, you may need to include other information to help define the context for using a particular style or interaction.
I can recall times when I also had to write UI component rules, descriptions of how groups of UI elements should behave together, along with the requisite style guides. The idea was to give an engineer as much information as possible (in big companies, face-to-face meetings are not always possible!) for both what a thing should look like, and what it’s expected behavior was supposed to be. Providing context for the work at hand was just as important as defining the rules for implementing a visual style.
Usability testing is another way to help you manage the consistency problems. There are numerous kinds of issues that get revealed during usability evaluations. Gathering qualitative information in this way can also help you measure and monitor the impact of decisions or changes made to your products. Addressing these issues can not only help ensure consistency, but also help resolve a wide array of problems that your product may have.
Improving consistency can improve growth!
Hopefully, this has been helpful. In the grand scheme, think of improving consistency as a way to help you improve user retention. Strong standards and consistent interface designs help people use your product effectively day after day. And as it has been said “product is the ultimate growth hack”. You will not only be able to keep more of your existing customers, but also very likely attract more customers to your product.
And who would say “No” to that?