Don’t mistake common UI patterns for best practices

A hard look at how the browse experience translates in the digital space

Callie de Roussan
Aug 4, 2017 · 5 min read

A colleague of mine recently published an article on a new model that he coins the human environment model—an approach to product design that asks us to “blur the line between the digital and material environment,” and in doing so, generate an emotional appeal from our users.

I thought I’d take a stab at exploring this concept as it relates to one experience in particular: browse. Designers have notoriously poured their blood, sweat and tears into browse experiences, and to what end? These experiences often overstimulate and under deliver.

Take Amazon Instant Video’s browse experience, for example:

Appeal to the senses, yes, but never at the expense of legibility.

Amazon’s densely packed browse experience is visually stimulating—and yet, this experience feels overwhelming, cluttered and illegible. We can’t begin to browse because frankly…we’re not sure where to begin. Which begs the question: why do we continue to put ourselves through the oftentimes hellish experience of trying to find content this way?

Why do we browse?

And yet…we do it all the time.

Whether it’s a sofa that we found for a steal on Craigslist or a movie that we stumbled upon on Netflix, there’s a rush of excitement that comes with finding exactly what we‘re looking for—but didn’t know we needed. It’s a variation of known-item searching; we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, and yet, we know it when we see it.

It’s the thrill of the hunt.

Where do browsing experiences break down?

  • Structures are overly-prescriptive. A-to-B-to-C category structures with rigid, hierarchical schemes force users down specific pathways that don’t lend themselves to exploration and instances of discovery, or don’t resonate with the way a user thinks about organizing content.
Unless this is supposed to be funny (in which case, ha…ha…) no Hulu, just no.
  • Structure is absent. Don’t think that by going to the other end of the spectrum, you’ll solve the mystery of bad browsing experiences. Removing structure from the equation is a sure-fire way of causing disorientation and distress.
Xbox has been iterating on their masonry grid layout for what feels like forever.
  • Browsing isn’t the dominant search pattern. This sounds like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised by how many interfaces feature complex browsing structures when their users are predominantly performing known-item searches.
Browsing for thrifty finds on Craigslist? Sure! Drilling three categories deep for cream cheese? Woof.
  • The experience…or lack thereof. The goal of a well-designed browse experience should be to delight, not just deliver the user to the point of conversion. Unfortunately, many browse patterns in the wild aren’t concerned with the user’s journey; they’re merely an extension of search. This is where the human environment model comes into play, where delivering sensory-level stimulation yields the greatest satisfaction, and basically…where we separate the men from the boys.

The secret sauce

Be explicit sparingly.

I’m talking about this:

GrubHub uses explicit navigational elements sparingly, and it works.

GrubHub uses explicit filters at the top of their browse experience that allow the user to immediately specify what type of food they’re craving. They use a simple structure to point their hungry user base down the right path. No multi-tier hierarchies. No crazy cross-listing. Just browse by food type, filter down from there and voila! Dinner is served.

Think outside the box…err device.

Hankr appeals to the senses with their visual restaurant app.

Evoke the spirit of the hunt.



Real User Experience Leaders: Sharing and discussing the latest in user experience design, research, and philosophy.

Callie de Roussan

Written by

Remote product designer @hubspot, systems thinker and Freehand enthusiast.



Real User Experience Leaders: Sharing and discussing the latest in user experience design, research, and philosophy.

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