The Tension Between Consistency & Content

by August 2, 2006

In my work across various product domains, I’ve observed several recurring points of tension present within the interface design process. In addition to clashes between information density vs. visual simplicity and user friendly vs. user empowerment there is often an underlying tension between design and development consistency and the unique nature of content. Hopefully I can explain with a few recent examples.

On a large ecommerce site design project, there was a continual tension between a consistent user experience across all product categories and the need to optimize for specific category experiences. For example, did the diamonds category need a unique set of purchase guarantees and search filters? Conversely, would these unique finding and buying experiences negatively impact cross-category shopping? The tension was between maintaining a consistent shopping experience that enabled users to easily transition between categories vs. unique interface designs optimized for each category’s specific needs.

When working on the design of a professional organization’s Web site we developed a consistent page template for any given set of dynamic content. Upon review with project stakeholders we determined that some of these sets of content were strategically more important to their organization than others. Representing these select sets of content differently -for instance with more prominent access across the site, unique presentation styles, or expanded calls to action- requires unique design and development solutions that have to be created and maintained. As a result, there was a tension between giving unique content the distinction it requires but increasing up-front and on-going design and development costs vs. representing content equally across the site.

During the design of a product that enabled users to search multiple types of content, our tendency was to make each set of search result pages consistent. Regardless of the type of content people were searching for we opted for the same visual and interaction design assuming consistency would help them transition between different result sets. Following extensive testing, we came to realize this similarity actually confused people –they didn’t understand they were looking at a different type of result. Changing the presentation of each unique result set helped communicate the difference.

Several times during the ongoing design of a social Web application we were forced to make a decision between a consistent interaction model and the need to encourage specific user behavior. This particular application had a single location for adding data to the system. While this provided a consistent interaction, it also required every data input form be accessible from the same location. In order to market a particular input to users we had to bubble it up and out of the single access point. The tension here was between a single consistent data entry interaction vs. multiple data entry methods that enabled us to highlight certain actions over others.