The Design of Digital Forms : Looking for Negative Reactions in an Assembly

Since I started to get more into the design of digital products, an idea has been always running in my head, the idea that what we do as digital product designers is not very different from what architects do. Like them, we try to create structures for people, but without the boundaries of a physical world. A product is basically a bunch of scenarios (rooms), with doors to open other scenarios (connections), with content or actions to perform inside each one of them. Our users are the ones who enter into these scenarios, they use the doors to go to other places, to read content and to perform actions, everything they need to do in order to address their needs or solve their problems. Following that metaphor, then it’s our work to provide the best structures for them.

When I was looking for more knowledge about how architects approach design, I found a book called Notes on The Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. It’s probably one of the most fascinating books I’ve read about design, because it provides a very large amount of core concepts I wasn’t aware of, and furthermore, it proposes a very interesting methodology for a design process. I’m sure that Alexander’s vision about design is something is worth to continue experimenting with.

This book was written in 1971, computers weren’t even a dream for the general public then, but putting these concepts in our current context and industry, it’s amazing how well these fit and how much these concepts could help us to improve our approach for product design. So, the following personal thoughts I want to share this time will use some of the terminology used in the book, and also its content as a basis to explore more ideas.

A form and their external forces

Alexander defines a form as the final result of a design process, a form is what we call now a “product”. In a more generic sense, it can be everything that has been made to solve something. For example, a signal at the side of a road has been designed to communicate something to drivers. The signal then is a form. But the form itself is not a solution, because a solution is the result of how this form interacts with their external forces, being the external forces the context in which the form lives. A signal at a road is only a solution if it exists in the context where is solving a problem. If this signal has been put at the right location and position, where the drivers really need to assimilate that information, so then the form interacts correctly with its external forces. Is this interaction between form and its external forces what makes something functional, let’s call that interaction an assembly.

Negative reactions

How do we know if an assembly occurs correctly? How do we know if our form is interacting in the right way with its external forces? Those questions are the equivalent to the common one: How do we know if our design works?
Many people try to find the right answer for the question, but the fact is that in the real world, are the wrong answers the most recognizable ones. Let’s say that we are decorating a living room and we put a bed in the middle of the hall, then would be obvious that the bed is in the wrong place. The reaction to that assembly has been negative and it didn’t take us too much time to know it. So, the key here is that if we are looking for shapping our form in the way that can fit perfectly to its external forces, then we need to start looking at the incongruences that every new attempt of assembly has as result. If we take every design solution as an hypothesis of a real solution, then we need to look for the things are not working well when that hypothesis is being tested.

The following question is a logic one: How expensive is this?

The key of iteration in short cycles

Yes, if we are trying to find a solution for 2 + 2, testing any other number from 0 to 100 until we can reach 4, then it seems as a waste of time. Being ‘time’ the key element in the equation, it’s clear that we need to improve that aspect. How could we make this process cheaper and effective?

The Oxford dictionary defines an iteration as:

“Repetition of a mathematical or computational procedure applied to the result of a previous application, typically as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to the solution of a problem”.

Now, let’s translate this concept of iteration to the relationship that designers have inside a team working in one product, if we picture that team working as scientists in a laboratory, then we have set the proper environment to make this process of finding negative reactions faster and effectively. How? Applying all these fancy concepts we’ve been hearing a lot: Design Thinking, Functionality Testing, Prototyping, etc. Or what I like to call: experimenting with possible solutions from different perspectives.

Wrapping up some ideas, we can say that one of the main goals of a design is to find a perfect relationship between a form and its external forces, then the role of a design team is to analyze each attempt of assembly trying to recognize negative reactions in short cycles of iteration. Easy peasy.

Do we need two key perspectives?

What we need to analyze of an assembly it depends on each product. But seeing the big picture, probably most of the forms need to be analyzed from two perspectives: 1) One in which the goal is to understand how well the assembly is solving the problem, maybe using quantitative metrics in order to measure the impact of the interaction between form and its external forces in a more “objectively” way. And 2) A more blurry one; The analysis of the user’s responses to the assembly. How does the user feels about the form and their relationship with it?.

The idea is that the first perspective should give us a picture about how the assembly is working, but the second one could give us valuable complementary information about the user experience, because is not just about how our form solves problems, is how these problems are being solved and what is the user’s emotional reaction to it.


I’m looking forward to sharing more thoughts and ideas like these, so stay tuned!

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