Avoiding autopilot

Three things a year-long print project reminded me about stepping out of my designer echo chamber.

The trade-off between complexity and usability is nothing new to UX designers—it’s a persistent challenge. How do we deliver a meaningful amount of information in a simple, consumable way?

Earlier this year, I wrapped work on a project that, for me, dug into this question on a whole new level. I was lucky enough to spend about 17 months as an independent collaborator with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), New York Immigration Coalition, and Partner & Partners, on “Welcome to Healthcare,” part of CUP’s Making Policy Public series. Our goal: to create a printed foldout that helped immigrants in the state of New York understand their healthcare options.

Needless to say, the subject-matter was behemoth. Navigating healthcare jargon is tedious enough for your average New Yorker, but for many immigrants, the process is also riddled with language barriers and concerns that seeking health care might negatively impact their immigration status. Our final deliverable had to be legally accurate, accessible, and also reassuring in tone, letting readers know that they did in fact have options, no matter their situation.

After we gathered and tested our rather imposing mass of raw content, I put my UX hat on, confident that our information challenge could be solved with the usual Swiss Army design knife: clean icons, a muted color palette with a few effective accents, a clear type hierarchy, and a healthy dose of negative space. Y’know, that thing which solves everything: a clean, crisp interface.

I quickly learned that my viewpoint was limiting the project. I had been thinking digitally for so long, that I had forgotten that there are other ways to tackle information design. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the approaches I had envisioned were definitely valuable to the project, and the typographical expertise brought to the table by Partners & Partners was an unquestionable winning point of the final product. But these approaches were, nonetheless, a single part of a broader solution.

It feels important at this juncture in the article to state something: I didn’t have to broaden my design approach because I was working in print. Rather, working in print reminded me that there are multiple ways to think of problems; ways that I had forgotten somewhere in the tunnel vision of screen life. But they absolutely still applied to digital work.

Some examples:

  1. Design is more than type and icons
    Good typography is essential. Good icon systems are valuable. But they’re not everything. For a while now, I’ve defaulted to thinking that complex information just needs to be made more readable, more scannable. But for an everyday audience trying to understand a colossally opaque topic, that’s not enough. A cascade of legal nuances becomes overwhelming, even with language translation, and important ideas can get overshadowed by intimidating jargon. Early on in our process, the CUP team suggested more narrative illustration as a way to convey larger ideas, and it proved incredibly effective. An elegantly line-drawn stethoscope icon appeals to designer-me, but it lacks the storytelling capability of an illustrated scene that shows someone getting their pulse taken in a doctor’s office. The specificity of the latter goes alot further in helping readers situate themselves within layered content. Initially, I was unsure of this method. Was I not slipping into illustrator territory, rather than designer territory? Nope. Designer territory is whatever it takes to communicate the idea.

2. Design can’t prioritize everything, and shouldn’t try to
It took us months — even with the aid of healthcare experts — to fully understand the multitude of requirements associated with various healthcare options. It’s a stretch to expect end-users to attain the same level of comprehension with a few solo readings of a fold out, no matter how strong the design. Simplifying the language and including visual devices like narrative illustration certainly helped bridge the gap, but at the same time, it meant that many technicalities couldn’t be communicated, and those technicalities were important. It was counterproductive to try and shoehorn the extensive knowledge of a healthcare expert into one piece of design. After all, our product was a single touchpoint in a larger process. Therefore, it made much more sense for us to convey broader salient points (like the fact that pregnant women, regardless of status, have recourse to healthcare), and then follow-up by pointing readers toward further resources that elaborate on specifics.

3. Effective ≠ Minimal
You don’t have to preach negative space to me, I’m a designer. And because I’m a designer, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that functional design has to mean minimalist design. In the “Welcome to Healthcare” project, we had to help our end-users overcome their legitimate apprehensions about using the healthcare system. To this end, a warm and encouraging look-and-feel was not just a nice-to-have, it was a requirement. As much as I love minimalism, it was too surgical in the context of this project, and I had to remind myself to push past it. Of course, we didn’t want to create something kitschy, but over the course of our back-and-forth on the subject, I realized that you don’t have to be making greeting cards for children to imbue playfulness. Such devices aren’t just decorative, they serve a functional purpose; in our case, helping end-users feel comfortable with the material by visually divorcing it from a medical industry look-and-feel. Obviously, in print, compared to web, visual systems can be more flexible. But I’m not sure that that necessitates everything on-screen being a bold sans-serif on various shades of white with padding for days. This isn’t the business card scene from American Psycho. Bloomberg’s Special Issues are a good example of more explorative visual treatments on websites. They’re certainly not perfect, but they do shift the needle towards more thoughtful systems that are meaningfully connected to their subject matter.

Naturally, none of the aforementioned takeaways are sacrosanct. And that’s almost the point: there’s no single set of infallible devices that can solve all information design or UX problems. Instead, it behooves us to stop ourselves every so often to ask whether we’re fully empathizing with the perceptions of our audience, or drifting into designer autopilot by creating technically good (great, even) work that doesn’t address anyone’s needs. It may involve rocking the boat a little, but that’s usually how you know it’s worth it.