You’ve probably heard it before: People just don’t read these days. Our attention spans have narrowed; we scan, skim, and savor headlines (sometimes enough to make T-shirts out of them). You might have even planned to skim this article. Likewise, when we navigate the web, we expect familiar visual shortcuts to help us along the way—three bars in the top right corner indicate a menu, underlined text is usually a link, and buttons are meant to be clicked on to redirect to a new page.
A well-designed user interface requires a clear understanding of the end user, easily guiding them toward the information they’re looking for without having to think about the actual interface at all. This is generally done by using universally understood design rules that are considered “best practice” and that provide visual cues toward function. So what happens when the design patterns to which we’re accustomed are turned on their head?
Antwerp, Belgium-based design firm Bagaar did just that by developing User Inyerface, a website that asks the user to complete a series of forms while using “an interface that doesn’t want to please you. An interface that has no clue and no rules.”
The concept emerged out of what the agency calls “DoDays,” a bimonthly opportunity for anyone to pitch an idea, a product, or an experiment. If the idea is selected, that person chooses a team and gets time aside from client work to develop it. And so, the idea of an impossible form emerged.
While all the information a user needs to navigate the site is there, the designers at Bagaar posit that we’ve been trained to overlook it by expecting iconography that the design community has agreed indicate particular functionalities. “We tend not to really look anymore, but expect certain things to be in a certain place or look a certain way,” says Dieter Desmet, creative director at Bagaar.
Those shared standards aren’t going to be found here. All-caps plain text? That’s a link. Be sure to uncheck the terms and conditions checkbox in order to accept them. And that large button in the middle of the screen isn’t to go to the next page. It’s to cancel. One thing is clear: Like anything that “isn’t your friend,” User Inyerface will test your patience.
“We had so many evil ideas, [but] we chose to only go with UX mistakes that could be seen as ‘honest mistakes,'” says Desmet. “We wanted to end up with a form that is utterly confusing, but if you stay calm and just read and look, you could walk right through it.” And because misery loves company, I asked Fabricio Teixeira, design director at Work & Co and founder of UX Collective, to do just that.
“This experiment reveals a critical user insight: how ingrained we are to recognize established interaction patterns in the interfaces we use every day,” says Teixeira. “Over the last few decades, the digital design field has made hundreds of micro-decisions that collectively establish a series of familiar interaction patterns.”
And while designers should always be pushing for better UX, he says they also need to recognize that some patterns (like checkboxes, buttons, and drop-down menus) have already become second nature to the user they’re trying to serve. “There’s still room to innovate and create more meaningful interactions,” says Teixeira. “The idea is to know when to go against the rule book.”
So how to toe the line between innovative and incomprehensible? By continuous usability testing, and seeing how far a familiar design can be taken before it breaks. “It’s a powerful exercise to pinpoint where you can push and where you might be disorienting users with something new,” says Teixeria. “That fine line between these two worlds is exactly where I want to walk as a designer.”
For those not directly involved in UX and UI design, Desmet feels that User Inyerface shows the importance of strong user experience and interaction design, even in something as simple as the word inside a button. “It goes to show that the internet is made by hard work and clever thinking, and that without good UX and UI, it would be an utter nightmare,” says Desmet. (We won’t tell him that some people think it already is.)