Being humble while staying foolish — Leveraging our history in UX.

The digital world is old. SaaS, Web applications and the service economy have arrived and is already far more established than we’d like the admit. They are no longer a differentiator but a baseline expectation. The blind you pay to get into the game, but we still approach the design of these things like we’ve never seen one before.

Restless reinvention is a core principle of good design. It’s the natural reaction to human nature to get bored with the same as what we had yesterday, it’s what moves the big concepts of fashion forwards makes companies like Apple with Steve Jobs famous quote of staying foolish so powerful and makes us progress as a species. And each year we get faster and faster in the art of getting bored.

I’d like to present a counter argument. Or at least a word of caution to this mindset with a single idea and practice: The Archetype.

Recognisable from every angle.

One of the core tenants of User Experience is *consistency*, and like it or not this transcends the design and fashion trends we see today. It’s why no matter how many iterations and versions of the industrial designers holy grail — the chair exist, you still look at each and recognise what it is and how to use it immediately. Across their infinite variants, that general ‘L on a stick’ form factor let’s you know which part to sit on, where your arms and back go and you’ll probably get a good idea for what it will feel like to sit on just from a first glance. You can recognise it from the youngest of kids crayon drawings.

Sure, plenty of chairs have deviated and iterated away from this form factor over the years (postmodernist chairs are some great examples of this), but how many have come to take over both the high design society and the consumer world for more than a moment of novelty? It’s an unmistakeable truth that the design of many everyday objects has reached a maturity level that we approach designing them in a very different way. We might event sketch out a page of crude L on a stick lines before beginning our true design work of next years best office chair over the top, full of iteration and the restless reinvention of an object as old as man.

You can take nearly every chair in the world, look at it from the side and within its very DNA is the Archetypical form of an ‘L atop a stick’. By embracing it industrial designers leverage your subconscious expectations of what a chair is, and how it works, laying their unique design over the top.

And it’s that vital concept, that fine detail to remember when getting hyped over this new era of design in software — to remember our history, software has been around for a pretty long time.

Introducing: Archetypes

Google defines them as: “A very typical example of a certain person or thing.”

Ok, kind of makes sense but not the best to describe how thats useful in UX. So lets look at another definition:

Jungian theory defines an Archetype as: “A primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.”

In other words, Archetypes are the most generic example — a template. That users will recognise no matter the application and get a feeling of how the UI will work. We use them to say that ‘generally we have these things, these go over here, while these go over there’.

Nowhere is this more important than in a world of IoT and analytics user experience, where by its very nature there is a huge amount of often complex data and concepts, and often resulting in the nifty, beautiful concepts you see on places like dribbble every day but rarely in the products you use every day. Why?

The answer is that many of them are like the beautiful chairs that didn’t follow the ‘L on a stick’ archetype. While vital to pushing us forwards, at the end of the day, they are rarely all that usable and so like other novelties they tend to fade away over time.

An important lesson I’ve learned in a complex and data rich world where new concepts are on the horizon each day is rather than to constantly reinvent everything, its important to stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us and use existing our users expectations manifested in UI to provide them with a familiar context in which to learn what your service is built for, be it IoT or anything else, not to reinvent and challenge them at that fundamental level (not all the time at least) so that they have to learn how your new combo works too).

Don’t reflexively draw new components in an experience, refine the old down to the very core archetypes, lay them out and draw over them.

Remember all these old things?

They may be ugly, clunky and often inelegant, but every person with a computer has used them for years, knows pretty much exactly how they work, how to work with them and how they will respond and react. These should never be looked down on, as they defined the very ways in which complex human computer interaction was born in the same way that ‘L on a stick’ did for the design of the chair that you are sitting on.

I know how a screen composed of them will probably work without ever touching it, I know my parents and even grandparents would too. But when was the last time I considered designing cutting edge web apps meant to be usable for all with them? It’s just not going to happen, but as I looked across them, I decided to try stripping them back, arriving at a blank canvas, but one with a well recognisable structure.

Look across all platforms from over 2 decades and you’ll find similar shapes, responses and general UX patterns that have existed forever, and when you strip out the particular application you find the Archetype most likely burned into your users mind without them ever being aware. Diverge with caution!

The key in a complex and data rich world where new concepts are on the horizon each day is to use and leverage our archetypes of UI to give our users a familiar context in which to learn what your service is built for, be it IoT or anything else, not to reinvent and challenge them at that fundamental level (not all the time at least) so that they have to learn how your new combo-box/radial button works too.

Now they may look like simple low fidelity mockup components, but I implore every designer to build out their toolbox of Archetypes before any project and test them on everyone by asking them what they ‘think’ they will do before even getting to touch them. You might discover some ingrained behaviours you didn’t expect, from the obvious ‘top corner to close’ to the much more subtle that you didn’t realise even you had. Use these as your foundation to generate designs that are testable, quickly and in low fidelity by simply arranging and filling out the minimum of the blanks. Freeing yourself up to focus on the parts that make your product unique, a differentiator and. exciting.

Let your archetypes do the heavy lifting of for you, protects you from usability blunders and let’s you concentrate on what you get the big bucks for — the unique experiences you want to deliver on top of this foundation. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but remember: