When Consistency is Inconsistent

Photo of assortment of vintage light bulbs

The word “consistency” shows up a lot in our day-to-day lives as UX designers. We talk about making things “more consistent” and we often discuss design solutions in terms of how  “consistent” they are with our existing experiences, viewing the “most consistent” solution as preferable and better for the user.

This approach is deeply flawed.

Simply making a solution more consistent with a prior solution only means that your solutions are consistent with each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better. Your UX can be consistently failing to meet the needs of your users (or worse, frustrating the hell out of them). Therefore, your consistent experience is consistently crappy.

To frame it slightly more optimistically- even if your existing experience is delighting users, you’re assuming a lot if you think that making a new experience consistent with the existing one is going to equal an automatic win. Yet this type of “consistency” is what many designers are trained to or told to strive for.

Consistency is truly achieved when your experience is consistent with your users’ expectations.

Sometimes you (as the designer) set expectations, but many times, you don’t set them at all. The user arrives with their own preconceived expectations of what a product should be and how it should behave. Jared Spool discusses these “basic expectations” in his post on the Kano model. I highly recommend checking it out and seeing how everything fits together. He really puts into context why meeting users’ basic expectations is so important.

Understanding Expectations

For the most part, a user’s basic expectations are outside of your control, or at the very least, you should assume they are. They have likely been formed by their own mental model(s), their level of experience using software, the business problems they experience daily, as well as other factors.

Users also arrive with some of these types of expectations that are largely obvious to a designer, because they’ve become nearly universal in the digital world. For example, expecting that a trash bin icon will perform a “delete” action, or using a pencil icon to edit something.

Bold Question Mark on ChalkboardWhen it comes to a user’s basic expectations, it’s on you (the designer) to discover them and understand them. Qualitative research will help you get there. If your experience is falling flat in test sessions, you not only need to know the “what”, but the “why”. Sometimes it takes a little digging to uncover the expectations, but they’re there, and you can get to them by asking the right questions.

Setting Expectations

Where you really have control over “expectations” are the ones that you, as the designer, set for the user through your visual framework and interaction design patterns. When you establish a well-tested convention that meets your users’ needs, you should absolutely use this convention as a starting point for solving future design problems. Where we see a solution such as this one start to lose value, is when we assume that just because Workflow A has the same visual design as Workflow B, that it’s “consistent’ and therefore desirable.

That’s not consistency, that’s standardization.

Standards are very important, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. Standardizing your UI  will absolutely help you achieve consistency, but it doesn’t guarantee it. If you standardize your visual language, users can eventually become fluent in it over time, and will even grow to base their expectations on it. This is ideal, because now you have heavily influenced those expectations we were talking about earlier. When you don your UX Detective hat, you’ll already be familiar with one of the systems in which users have based their expectations on – your own!

Don’t forget though, the most awesome ultimate consistency we should all be striving for is a solution consistent with users expectations.

How do we get there?

TL:DR – Research with users! For some actionable suggestions, read on…

Figure out the problem you’re trying to solve.

If you’re thinking in features instead of problem statements, it’s time to shift the conversation. By understanding your users’ needs, you learn more about what they expect a solution to deliver to them.

Build some prototypes, run some tests with real people, and ask lots of questions.

Quantitative data is great, but it doesn’t give you the full story. You need to put that UX  Detective hat on again and dig into the results by asking your participants “why?”.

Gather some competitive intel.

Often, customers will be transitioning from a competitor’s product to yours (and usually because your product is a better fit for their needs). However, it doesn’t hurt to have some familiarity with those other software products, because those products may have helped form your users’ expectations.

Iterate with care.

Everything you design is a chance to teach your users and develop their muscle memory. When you iterate (even with the goal of increasing visual design consistency), you may be disrupting their existing interaction patterns and creating a more inconsistent experience.

The Journey

Achieving consistency (much like achieving “great design”) is more of a journey than an end result. You can always improve, but you’ll eventually find that making progress gets easier over time as you develop a greater understanding for your users’ needs and expectations.

The more base knowledge you have, the better you are at targeting your solutions, and the closer you get to meeting expectations. It’s a compounding return on your investment of effort!

Just remember- consistency is a pillar of great design, but only when your solution is consistent with the right thing: expectations.

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Let’s Discuss!

What methods have worked for you when it comes to understanding expectations and creating consistency? Does your organization support these efforts, or do you find yourself running into challenges?

I know that I often run into the challenge of dispelling the misconception that consistency = “standardized UI” (which is what prompted me to write this post). Please consider sharing your experience(s) with us so that we can learn together!

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