Look before you leap: The importance of critical thinking in UI design

It’s easy to understand why people follow trends, wanting to keep up with the latest style is natural, we see how fashion influences people every day, and everywhere we go. Web design is no different.

Finding a list of the latest web trends is easy and as the year end approaches it will be hard to miss them. While there are few revelations, they are a useful compilation of what others are doing and how technology is changing, but they always seem to have an underlying tone that implies your website is out of date.

What is important is to take these trends in the spirit that they were intended, as inspiration and a celebration of innovation. Problems arise when people feel as though they have to jump on the bandwagon otherwise they will be left behind. What they don’t do before jumping is to consider the evidence. There is a lot to be said for embracing innovation and trends but make sure that you are doing it for a valid reason, not just because you think you have to or because you have seen it be successful elsewhere. Bowing to peer pressure doesn’t make for great strategy.

Doing what is right for your business

It’s very easy to be over-influenced by what your competitors are doing and feeling like you have to keep up with the latest trend can be a stressful business. The question that you need to ask yourself is, are you going to invest time and money into updating your site for the right reasons?

We know we don’t need to follow the crowd to meet our objectives, but it doesn’t stop us from being envious of competitors whose sites we feel use more current styles. You need to weigh the benefits of using these elements against whether they fit with your existing brand, your audience and your focus. Instead of jumping straight in, first, we need to pause and think.

Taking a step back

A series of assessments about the cost versus the perceived gain are required to make a decision. To do this, we need to take a step back and understand why we want something, what we are expecting the benefit to be and how much it will cost.

Features can spend months in development and testing to establish how effective they are. What we want to avoid is spending a lot of money for no real benefit. If it is a quick win and will improve the look of the site, for example, then we should probably do it, but if it takes months to build and is of unproven benefit then this is where we have to think carefully.

Assessing the benefit

Let’s assume that we have a design for a website that we are happy with and that meets the criteria for what we want the site to do. We might even say it’s almost perfect, but we feel that we’re being held back by the lack of this one new feature that will take two months to build. Should we build it? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you are making a set of assumptions about how easy it is to implement, how your audience will react and the extent to which it will benefit the user experience. The real answer should be ‘maybe, but let’s test it to see if it’s worth the time and effort’.

Choosing to follow a design trend could be a great foundation for service improvement, but at the same time, it might not work for you. You should use it to formulate a hypothesis and recognise the benefits of starting small, testing the idea and seeing how effective it might be. Being surprised at how much a newly introduced idea or feature fails to capture the imagination of your users can be quite frustrating, but imagine how much more frustrated you’d be if you spent time and money on something that people will ignore. Research becomes a valuable way to guard against this.

Start with the bare minimum and test features with your co-workers, your friends, someone off the street, a usability agency… anyone you can find. Time spent researching will allow you to see how people will use your idea so you can validate the thinking behind it and then improve upon it.

The key is to introduce a change that will generate genuine improvement. An idea without insight is a risk; research, testing and iteration mitigate that risk. Please, by all means, take the jump, but also consider starting small, learning from your mistakes and building on your success. Don’t get envious about how someone else has solved their problem; it’s not necessarily the key to solving yours.

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