The New North Star of User Experience Design

Our design mistakes will be the thing that saves the web.

June 1, 2024

In the labyrinth of mobile apps, we've all encountered those irksome game ads;, a fish devoured, a girl humiliated. and that poor king who just can't get a break from some sinister trap. Annoying? Absolutely. Inescapable? Undoubtedly. But there lies a secret within these vexing ads—their players' ineptitude ignites a burning desire within us to conquer what they cannot. This primal urge for completion, to master what seems just out of reach, becomes an invisible guide in our journey through user experience and interface design.

A Kinship with the Web

As someone who has grown with the internet, my bond with it is akin to that of siblings. Designing my first website decades ago in the Web 2.0 era, I scrutinized web design's evolving trends. Today, we face a growing menace: the homogenization of design. What started as guidelines to tame the wild west of the web has become rigid doctrine. This stifles innovation, and grows like a black hole as the lack of diversity as entities survey the ecosystem and only see one proven method of success. So they view a monotonous sea of sameness that leaves users adrift in a realm of predictability, where every interaction is anticipated, and thus, engagement wanes.

There was a time when a fellow designer would often criticize my work as "mistakes." These intentional deviations, seen as offensive to this early architect of the web, are, in truth, our salvation. By embracing these imperfections, even striving for them, beginning with asking 'what can we break??' We shatter the illusion of seamlessness and invite users into a dance of dissonance. This dance, fraught with unexpected turns, compels them to focus, to engage more deeply.
Diana Vreeland's adage, "The eye has to travel," finds new life in our digital age: "The mind must be challenged."
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fig 1.1 — Operation Outbreak is a project I designed for the Colubri Lab at Harvard and their immersive plague simulation. The landing features interactive microbiomes that move and overlap text drawing the user deeper into content.

The Cognitive Science Behind Dissonance

My home is a fortress of books, their weight a testament to my preference for the tangible over the digital. This preference is rooted in the organic interaction between ink and paper, when the ink-covered metal type slug hammers down into the soft surface of the paper there are fractions of seconds where the still wet ink bleeds out along the letterform's edge through the fibrous substrate in microscopic fractal patterns. Nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, yet this subtle, tactile noise is a hook for the eye and commands our attention. Screens, with their pixel-perfect precision, lack this richness. Herein lies the secret: cognitive disfluency. Making information harder to process enhances understanding and memory. This principle, when applied to web design, can transform passive browsing into active, meaningful engagement.

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fig 2.1 — The Guidebook page is a very long scroll with sections of rules and lists of similar information. To prevent monotony different types of lists are given unique styling and and placed in odd shapes that invite close inspection.

Balancing Discomfort and Usability

There exists a delicate balance between dissonance and frustration. The aim is to intrigue, not alienate. Web Brutalism's raw, provocative aesthetic can sometimes verge on the extreme and can easily wander into the territory of style for the sake of trend rather than a means of increasing conversions. However, its core principle—challenging users—remains sound. Effective disfluency should spark curiosity, and create moments of surprise and delight for the user, inviting exploration without overwhelming. Designers must wield this tool with precision, ensuring functionality while provoking thought. Subtle deviations—a background overlay, a broken outline, or a whimsical graphic—can add depth, encouraging users to linger and absorb. Web Brutalism is one design trend that most exemplifies this approach but by no means must an entire web project adopt this style to utilize the same guiding principles.

fig 3.1 — Alternating the brash combinations of background color with the unifying neon chartreuse enhances the sense of journey, reprising some familiar motifs in new ways.

Innovative Approaches to Modern Web Design

To break free from the chains of homogeneity, we must dare to venture into the unknown. This involves experimenting with unconventional layouts, unexpected colors, and atypical navigation. It requires courage from clients and boldness from designers. We need to approach each new project with fresh eyes, analyzing the market not to emulate what the competition is doing well, but to identify where their design fails to capture attention or maintain interest, and how we can set ourselves apart. The future of web design lies in our willingness to embrace the unconventional and to rectify the flaws in prevailing trends. By infusing purposeful dissonance and rejecting rigid "best practices," we can create digital experiences that captivate and engage profoundly. The path forward is fraught with challenges, but the rewards—dynamic and engaging digital landscapes—are worth every risk.

fig 4.1 — The homepage features big bold elements, easy to read for both young and old. Sections break with angled dividers, reminiscent of file folders, leading the eye down the page.