Designing Expectations

by Adrian Zumbrunnen / Apr 15, 2014

Irecently had a discussion with a client about why visual design is an inalienable asset in contemporary web/app design. I tried to explain how form follows content and how they mutually depend on and influence each other. The more I thought about this, the more captivating it became, and the more I started to sound like a preacher talking about the universal laws of aesthetics derived from nature. I felt it won’t take long until someone would interrupt me and ask: “Ah great point. Speaking of nature, how is hiking in the Swiss Alps?”.

We’ve all been there. Selling visual design and user experience is hard. You’re never going to create memorable experiences without communicating your ideas in a convincing and concise way, simply because if you don’t, they’ll never get enough support to see the light of day. After all, as designers, we are not in the technology business — we’re in the communication business.

One thing that constantly occupied my mind while writing about distraction-free reading experiences was the mutual dependency between form and content. We always say that form follows content, because this is the way a good design process is supposed to happen. But when it comes to experiencing design, that’s not what’s happening. The way we experience and perceive content, to a high degree, depends on our expectations and the context in which we look at it.

The Washington Post conducted a famous experiment, in which Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most talented violinists plays some of the most difficult classical pieces ever written on his multi-million dollar Stradivari violin in a Metro subway station, wearing a baseball cap. Most of you might have heard about the outcome. Out of over a thousand people, only seven stopped to listen for a few minutes. He made a total of 32$ with his performance. That’s pretty low when you consider that he usually fills concert halls where single seats get sold for over a $100 a piece.

This experiment showed how the context in which music and art takes place changes its perception. Social scientists discovered something that struck a chord with me: expectations change our experience as well.

Expectations change our experience.

Our thoughts and our perception of things change – as soon as we think about them. Thoughts follow to new and more complex thoughts that may eventually change the initial idea altogether.

Stick with me here and let’s have a look at two examples.

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Example 1

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Example 2

Take a guess, which one do you assign more value to? The one set in beautiful, carefully crafted typography? Or the other one, set in Arial surrounded by lots of distractions? Will reading this change your perception altogether? If you are like most people, you will automatically choose the first one. But what if someone would switch the content and take the content from the badly designed site and put it into the beautiful site? What we would end up with is nothing but an illusion. In other words, a lie. Not only does the bad design turn us off, it strips away value from content.

Margot Bloomstein, content strategist and speaker at this year’s Responsive Web Summit said that content affects experience and a user’s perception of an experience. She said that waiting in a line can be delightful, if there is content to discover while doing so.

Obviously, the same applies to the web. Only that people have a different feeling about space and time and that they are somewhat more stressed. If we don’t take the time and put hard work in the visual aspect of our work, many users will probably already have a bad or average preconception of our content. Worse: they might not even read it. Blind tests have shown that even the best wine connoisseurship don’t actually differentiate between the taste of a single wine served from different types of glasses. But when people are aware of the shape and quality of a glass, whether it has a great mouthfeel, or produces a great sound etc., it positively affects their experience and taste.

Again, the same applies to the web:

Expectations actively shape our distorted reality.

Our design decisions define the user’s expectation, which can eventually have a huge impact on their perception of content. So in many ways, when we think about design, we should ask ourselves questions like: what expectations will people have when they see this? Did we build anticipation? What will users expect if they interact with this element?

Experience eventually emerges when form meets content.

Knowing the answer to these questions can help us create more seamless experiences that feel integrated and honest. This might bring up even further questions. For example, an author might wonder: “Will my content be read in such an environment?”, while the designer might wonder “How might the quality of the writing impact people’s perception of my design skills?”.

So when Aristoteles famously said “The whole is bigger than the sum of it’s part”, it turns out that this statement holds more truth than we might have ever imagined.

Let's talk on Twitter @azumbrunnen or check out some of my other writings.