User Experience

User Experience as a Lesson in Civics

Jon Stewart, at his Rally for Sanity, noted that most people live their lives “just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often it’s something they do not want to do, but they do it. Impossible things get done every day that are only made possible by the little, reasonable compromises,” he said, referring to the small, daily acts of civility that lubricate the wheels of society.

I like to think that good user experience, when functioning at its highest level, is like an act of civility. When we design things that are hard to use, too complex to understand at a glance, or with dark design patterns, we’re being uncivil to our neighbours, family and friends who will use what we’ve produced.

On a personal level, civility resides in our ability to look our fellow citizen in the eyes and recognize that, whatever minor annoyance or conflict we might be having with them, we trust in their innate goodness and desire to do the right thing; we recognize them as a person worthy of respect.

When it comes to civic design (the use of patterns to design buildings, towns, and places), we have to extend this goodwill towards the many; anticipating their many needs, desires, destinations, and goals. Citizens want clear landmarks and signposts, welcoming public spaces, streets that neither induce agoraphobia nor claustrophobia; public buildings that both inspire and have the right number of easily-locatable bathrooms.

Civic designers and architects can refer to the world’s great cities, the best of the built environment, and use modern techniques of applied anthropology (embedded into design patterns), to achieve those goals. Speaking of graphic design (but inspired by architecture) in The Vignelli Canon, Massimo Vignelli stresses the idea of appropriateness as a kind of civility – using the correct form at the correct scale for the given uses and not ignoring the neighbours or surroundings, for instance. When designers, architects and planners ignore these rules, as you can see in nearly any post-war suburb or bland office park, we end up with places not worth caring about.

For the builders of websites and software, merely providing lists of functions will not produce something beautiful, usable, and well-loved. To create a site or app worth caring about, you’ve got to remember that there’s a real person out there that’s going to use it. Not a “consumer” or a “user,” but a citizen. And they’re waiting for you to enlighten, instruct and inspire them.


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