How I learned to embrace familiarity

| Carol Liao

During the past year, I’ve learned an incredible amount from working at The Artificial. New processes, terms, and techniques have transformed me into a more user-focused designer, but the pivotal moment in my career was when I learned to embrace existing interactions.

My background is in print design, and I had graduated from a program that valued idiosyncrasy and the idea of embracing the unfamiliar. I loved this so much I designed my thesis project with intentional ambiguity to force the audience to make their own connections. Needless to say, my brain was wired to design against the grain.

My first big project at The Artificial was a mobile app with a great deal of complexity. It required a way for users to be able to browse through a comprehensive list of their previous activities and uploaded media, while also seeing entries uploaded by other connected users. Sounds a lot like a Facebook timeline, right?

At the beginning of the project, I felt that the vertical entry-after-entry timeline was an interaction that had been used ad nauseum since its conception. It seemed like a cop out to resort to sketching out a familiar visual frame and I fallaciously correlated that with little room for creativity. Thus, my first sketches were futile attempts at reinventing the wheel, playing with layouts that created unnecessary confusion.

When it came time for round one of feedback, I wasn’t given suggestions for improvement, but instead a whole new set of questions for my sketches to consider; use cases that would break my design and a whole world of considerations that I didn’t expect to be faced with this early on in the process. As I began to find solutions to remedy the issues, I noticed that it was transforming back into the entry-after-entry timeline format that I was straining to avoid. However this time I wasn’t disheartened. Going through the process of justifying each decision rather than blindly trusting a ubiquitous solution not only alleviated my concerns of “copying”, but allowed me to focus my efforts on the more interesting project-specific aspects of the experience.

“When is it appropriate to truncate information?”, “Does the past scroll up or down?”, “What is the right balance of user entered information to app provided information?”

Questions like these became the challenges I found delight in solving, and they became much more fulfilling design challenges than forcing users learn a new behavior.