April 28, 2016
If you've at all been anywhere on the Internet in the last decade, you're probably familiar with the Like Button.
This tiny, few-pixel-wide button is, despite what you might think, a marvel of modern design. Not only does it work for hundreds of languages, cultures, time zones, mindsets, and devices, it's also simple, rarely broken, and almost infinitely versatile, as it has to be, to be used by billions of people anywhere in the world.
In digital design, there are these elements of software or websites that are small enough that they go unnoticed, but designable, so that a well-designed version can change the feel of a product. Take the iPhone's notification center, for example. If you just "pull down" from the top of the screen, the notification center doesn't just slide down, it lands on the bottom edge of the phone with an inaudible "thud". That's not there because it has to be -- it's actually probably simpler to do without the extra movements when the shade slides down. But it's there, because the designers at Apple know the feeling of playfulness and liveliness that's conveyed by extra, micro-movements.
Take, as another example, the "search" button on google.com. You'll notice, perhaps for the first time, that when you mouse over to click that button, not only does the outline light up in blue, there's a very subtle shade that emanates from under the button, giving the impression that it's floating off the page. There's no reason for that shadow to exist -- it only complicates the code behind the website. But Google's designers knew that adding that slight element of realistic motion would add to the usability and the delightful elements of the experience of Google Search.
In designer-speak, we call these small, apparently extraneous added-on details "micro-UX's" or micro-experiences. By themselves, these smaller experiences don't do much -- a well-designed "like" button or a playfully animated play/pause button won't be useful by themselves, without the bigger context of the app itself. But in the right settings, these smaller, sometimes unexpected animations and interactions that happen within the smallest scales of design form the personality of the design and the product.
A set of bouncy animations can make a boring and drab-looking website a whole lot more engaging, and the absence of feedback or movements in an app can make an exciting task completely boring. These small elements of design and interaction don't fundamentally change the object of the design, but they do make a huge impact on how the finished whole comes off to the user. The biggest impressions of design are determined far less by the big things -- color scheme, layout, and so forth -- and far more by the little things -- slight animations, bounces, feedback, and the like -- than most of us think.
But websites and apps aren't the only things we encounter that are a collection of experiences. Frankly, that's our day-to-day life. Every moment, we take some action and pass through small, momentary experiences we take for granted. We light our candles, open our books, drown out the hum of the space heater nearby... We push these smaller experiences aside in favor of focusing on the "goals" -- the big experiences in life.
Our analogy to design, however, says there's a better way to go about our everyday. If we follow our analogy...
We spend the bulk of our time planning, reviewing, and executing the long-term goals in life -- the big elements of our life's design, if you will. We pick out our majors, our careers, our family choices, our places of residence like designers pick out the color palette or the layout of an important website. We spend a lot of time comparing evidence and carefully deliberating on the options, making sure we land on the best possible decision, because these choices matter a lot.
But any good designer will tell you, thinking about the big things is just the beginning. And rather than stopping and caring about the far-away goals and the long-term plans about our life, maybe there's something to gain from paying equal attention to the smaller delights we can find every day -- the micro-experiences in our day-to-day lives that we can improve.
I'm by no means advocating you ditch your college plan or your dream of a Ph.D. and go partying, but there is definitely something to be gained by paying more attention to the choices we make every day, sometimes mindlessly, to try to improve how we feel about the small things. Maybe that means going out on a walk for a half hour instead of surfing Twitter when you wake up in the morning. Maybe that means sitting down for ten minutes tonight, before bed, to read a book you really liked a few years ago, when you still had time. Maybe that means just closing your laptop every few hours, opening your windows, turning on some music, and just relaxing when you feel drained.
I've always found the idea of "designing a lifestyle" really intriguing, because there are a lot of principles and best practices in design that can really enhance how we spend our time. And this is certainly one of them. If we sit down to think about it, the opportunities we have every day to make alternative choices are numerous, and for many of us, a good number of those daily choices are ones you could rethink to add a little more delight into your everyday routine. In the short term, it might not seem like a lot, but as with any element of design, in the long term, the effects could be pretty unexpected.
* Look more here for some excellent examples of really playful and ingenious design hiding in small places.