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Designing the unexpected

6 minute read

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Designing the what?

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company and the man who bought the automobile to the masses, once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

While there is some debate as to whether Ford actually uttered these words verbatim, the sentiment is beautiful; that while we know what we want (and it’s not saying that’s incorrect) there are things out there we don’t yet know exist, or don’t yet exist at all, so how can we know we want them?

In this article, I’ll look at designing the unexpected; the process to identify what the unexpected parts of a website can be, and the benefits they can have to your business.

The principle

The inspiration for this thinking, which I now apply to my work in user experience on almost every project, came from a book called Designing for Emotion written by Aaron Walter and published by A Book Apart. The book (which is a great and thought-provoking read for many reasons) takes a psychological theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and applies that to a digital experience. If you’re unfamiliar with the theory, Maslow said that we basically have levels of different types of needs, which we seek in order of importance, starting with physiological (making sure we’re alive) and safety, and ending in creating relationships and self-fulfilment. What Walter does is use that same principle, and apply it to what a person looks for in a website, from the functional (the website actually works in a browser) to the usable (it’s intuitive to use). He ends this thought by saying what’s normally missed in designing websites, at the top of the pyramid, is the pleasurable part. The part you didn’t even know it was there, was a joy to find, and felt it was relevant to you. This is the unexpected, to have a website that has been created so thoughtfully, it almost anticipates our needs, feelings and feedback.

My first experience of this (which I was aware I was having) was buying a book for my son Rufus by Wonderbly called The Little Boy or Girl Who Lost Their Name. That wasn’t the actual long-winded title you got, as the whole point of the books is that they are personalised to the gender and name of the child, with each page being on the subject of the letter of their name. I knew the digital work by this company was good (someone I used to work with was a developer there at the time) but I still didn’t know a lot about them, so I went on to get a book for Rufus.

As I selected the book, I could see that a lot of consideration had gone into this pre-purchase journey of personalising the book. It was aimed at doting parents, guardians, family and friends, with playful and adorable copy on the form elements, gentle and fresh animations on the interactions, and as I went through customising this book and purchasing, positive messaging reaffirmed that I was putting in the correct information and that it was an exciting thing to be doing.

I didn’t come to this website saying: ‘hey I really need little green ticks and smiley faces as I fill in my billing address’, but what it did do is take the mundane secondary part of the journey and keep me on point; that this was fun, Rufus would love it, and I should be excited. Why is this important? Other than the warm feeling it should give the creators of this website, what it did is turn me from a customer (good) into a salesperson (great) as I just had to show someone the next day the website and how fun it was. That person I showed might have bought a book (even greater) and possibly then shown some of their friends (even greater still). It’s clear to see that this is good for business, and this all came from the unexpected.

So, let’s look at how we put this into practice…

A digital pat on the back

Returning to the example of the Wonderbly book, I didn’t go to the site consciously looking for positive reinforcement. When designing websites and interfaces, there is a lot of non-positive messages we need to give to a visitor in order for them to complete something, such as ‘invalid email address’, or ‘out of stock’. While these are a necessity in interface design, assisting in guiding them through a journey correctly, countering this with messages when something has been done correctly gives balance and gives someone something they didn’t expect, but helps them feel they’re doing something positive.

Look through your site and evaluate it. If a form is split into multiple pages, is there a way of encouraging them on such as a green progress bar? If a message has been sent, can the confirmation page thank them and give them a rough idea of response time? If something is in stock, do you let people know? Positive reinforcement can really assist in conversion and give people the confidence they’re using the site correctly, thus making them more likely to stick around and return.

Don’t think ‘users’, think ‘people’

When we’re designing a new website, or even improving an existing one, we’re doing this for the people that come to it. To better provide them content, an online service, or a product. The trap that we all fall into a lot of the time is this term ‘users’. It’s clinical, and removes the fundamental element to what we are, which is ‘people’. People are all different, they have different needs, outlooks, capabilities and requirements, and ultimately will respond differently to varying stimuli. Saying ‘users’ on the other hand, makes us think percentages and what the masses are doing, which while important, leaves out the side that makes us human. A prime (and brilliantly observed) example of this is Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne. If you look at them as a demographic, they are strikingly similar in age, income, location, but obviously in a real-world setting, they are very different people. One was in Black Sabbath and now strides around his house shouting his wife, wearing all black and listening to metal music, the other is married to the Queen.

Before you start any new work, think about example users and write down what type of person they are, what their objective in general is, how they have come across your site and what technology they are using. Go into detail on this, does Ginny (49) from a village near Bradford with slow village wifi want to buy a birthday present for her daughter? Or maybe Tom (19) from London who works at a startup and needs to find the answer quick before the meeting he is late for? All of these details, even though speculative and works of fiction, help us. They give us another person’s brain to get inside of when evaluating our own work and the work of others. What appeals to us, might not to Ginny, or while Tom can find the information, it isn’t labeled for someone of his age and therefore takes a while to find.

Write these down, agree on them, pin them to the wall, and constantly hold your work up to it. As you cater to their wants and requirements, start to then think about what they might respond well to. Maybe Ginny doesn’t know you offer gift wrapping in a choice of colours, and she can pick her daughter’s favourite colour, or there is a PDF Tom can put into his cloud account with the key points for his meeting. These touches, albeit small, will have a direct impact on how likely Ginny and Tom are to return to the website or even recommend to others.

Content before design

We’re talking heavily about the factors that need to go into the design, but let’s consider that term for a second. ‘Design’ applies to everything going on the site, not just colours, fonts and layout, and therefore includes content. When writing and structuring the content for your site, remember the unexpected and the people who will read it. If your brand is playful, can we make them laugh? It’s a risk and can be awkward sometimes, but if done well leaves a person a little happier than when they arrived at the page, and a happy customer is more likely to convert or return.

Also think about value-added content, that is to add content on your website which has no real benefit to you directly, but does show a viewer there is genuine useful free content on the site that isn’t trying to sell them anything. People who see a website as a free resource to them will more than likely return.

In summary…

There are a lot of factors that need to go into designing an appropriate and functioning website that are far more important than this, and as we revisit Aaron Walter’s adaptation of Maslow’s pyramid, people will need other aspects before these pleasurable Easter eggs dotted around your site. Rather than think of unexpected design as a stage to be completed, think of it like an enrichment layer to every stage of designing and building a new website.

Look for the positive messaging you can convey to your audience, remember your audience and their mindset, and keep your content as refined and honed as the website design itself. Giving your website this attention, and thinking about what you can give to your visitors before they know it’s there, can have a massive impact on how your brand and business is perceived.

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With over eight years industry experience, Jon Dodd has worked with a range of clients, from government bodies to luxury brands, in the UK, United States and Australia, to create user-centred, accessible and end-to-end web experiences. Formerly Creative Director at the award winning digital studio Un.titled, he is the owner of a design practice called Alloneword, specialising in user experience, creative direction and digital strategy.

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