Design patterns: an interview with Andrew Coyle, lead designer at Flexport

Are design patterns saving us time? If so, how should that time be used? We decided to ask an expert for his thoughts on this.

State of UX 201 7, Illustration by Pablo Stanley

Following up our report on the State of UX in 2017, we are interviewing designers who are big thinkers for each one of these important themes for the design community in 2017. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Andrew Coyle has written incredibly thorough pieces on best practices in interaction design and usability, published here on So, no one is better than he is to talk with us about design patterns.

Usability becomes a commodity

Design patterns are still a thing — a big thing. More and more, designers can rely on robust and comprehensive interaction pattern libraries for solving common design use cases. Now that the basics are covered, where do we want to focus our efforts?

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when designing a door handle. Innovation just for innovation’s sake, like trying to create a completely disruptive navigation system for your website or app, can bring usability problems in the long term. It all comes down to: what exactly is the user need you’re trying to solve by introducing a new interaction pattern?

Luckily, interaction design pattern libraries and guidelines are helping keep designers honest and focused on what really matters for the user: getting things done in an easy and familiar way.

It was about time.

Meeting basic usability standards is crucial for any successful product these days — although someone in the room will always feel entitled to raise their hand and argue Snapchat is not the most “intuitive” experience ever, yet is still successful.

Cover the basics, focus on the details

In an era where meeting basic usability requirements is a given, and competing products are reaching feature parity fairly quickly, what really differentiates digital products is how relevant and delightful the experience can be.

The word “usability” itself is losing a bit of importance. It requires too little from us.

Why does one choose to use Gmail over Yahoo, Medium over Blogger — if the features are 99% the same? It’s definitely not about disrupting usability standards. It’s about that additional layer of sophistication that can only be achieved when you put enough time and brainpower into the tiniest details, the most subtle animations, the most elegant transitions — not just for the sake of creating whimsical dribbble shots.

In 2017 designers should not be afraid of starting from design patterns to cover the basics, and then focusing the bulk of their time on the details that will make experiences feel more relevant, delightful — and therefore more memorable.

Andrew Coyle is a Product Design Lead at Flexport, and has written several thorough pieces on best practices in interaction design and usability.

Are design libraries being utilized more widely these days?

Andrew: Design libraries are great references. Google’s Material Design, for example, is probably the most influential right now. It does a great job providing:

  • Guidelines with practical examples
  • Correct and incorrect implementation
  • Theory behind the design

The major operating systems of the world don’t control UI, but they are a major influencing force. I think designers should derive best practices from these libraries and build their own to address their unique circumstances.

Are we reaching a point where most of the interfaces we use in our products are pre-built and ready to use? Is there still room for custom user interfaces?

Andrew: I think that day has arrived and always existed, but it isn’t documented in one place. UI libraries are just a set of commonly agreed upon curated standards. From the day humans created their first tool, technology and humanity have been interwoven and have grown together. This is also true for design libraries. Components and patterns change as human desire and context change.

Design’s purpose is to make technology more relatable to thereby further divorce humans from their current humanity, and propel them further.

There is always room to improve and expand UI. No one pattern or component is permanent. They come, go, and evolve as the system grows.

It is very valuable for Design teams to create a design library that addresses their product’s unique context. Custom libraries should leverage common design patterns, principles, and usability best practices. What works for Google won’t necessarily work for SnapChat. Each company addresses different problems with different users, and the design at each company influences design as a whole.

I have found it much better to design first and standardize the pieces later. I wouldn’t suggest starting a project from a predetermined UI library because you will box yourself into a prescribed way of designing that won’t match the circumstances of the project.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using design pattern libraries?

Andrew: The disadvantage of using a design library is the difficulty of building, and maintaining it. It can be a lot of work. Experienced designers work within the pattern libraries in their heads. Getting it out of their mind and into a documented library can expose their biases and inconsistencies. It also enables less experienced designers and engineers learn and implement design the right way.

Knowing the rules is good, but designers can bend the rules or completely ignore them and still be successful. Aesthetics can dramatically effect the use of a design simply because it is fun like a game, or because it is beautiful and loosens the user up to figure it out. I wrote an article on aesthetic usability effect after witnessing users overcome blatant usability issues because the design was visually appealing and fun.

If design patterns save designers time, how do you think we should be using that extra time?

Andrew: Better understand users.

How can a designer follow design patterns and standards, and yet make the experience unique and delightful for their users?

Andrew: Designers should know the general usability rules and ingredients of design. After that, it is up to them to creatively employ design patterns to solve problems. I think of product design as three reinforcing functions: UX research (understanding the user), UI systems (consistent interface components based on best practices), and brand identity (visually communicating values). Good design happens when these disciplines come together around the unique characteristics of a product. The best designers understand how these functions connect to create amazing products.

I am working on a usability and aesthetics focused UI library that documents best practices. I am pooling everything I have learned about UI while working for large tech companies, agencies, and startups. I have also done a bunch of research. My goal is to help designers understand the reasons why certain design implementations work and others cause problems. If you are interested subscribe here: OhApollo

Thank you Andrew Coyle for your participation. See you in the next interview.


Author: Fabricio Teixeira

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