Will understanding the mainstream affect me as a designer?

I’ve been contemplating how designers can identify better with more mainstream users.

I had a thought last week. What if, by rejecting Facebook, I’m actually missing out on design patterns that are so influential on the mainstream user that it affects their perception on the rest of the web?

And the same goes for Google Chrome. I’ve been going through a rebellious anti-Google phase, but now Chrome has taken over as the world’s most popular browser, am I making life harder for myself by developing sites in Safari first?

As designers (and in the creative and tech industries generally) I think we might err on the side of the hipster. We can start to reject brands and products because we’re “too cool for that mainstream stuff the average user falls for…” Or maybe we’re just acutely aware of the downsides, hitches and ill-intentions web services might have because we work in the industry.

Could it be positive that we arrive at mainstream products, when we need to do research, with the fresh eye of a new user? Or are we tainted by the fact we know too much? We could be saving ourselves from being inspired by standards and conventions that might be poor, but are we better informed for knowing as many potential solutions to common problems as possible?

Well I think I’m going to try being more of a mainstream user. I want to understand the web better as other people see it. I’m switching to Google Chrome for now, and I’ve signed up to Facebook again.

I’d say I’ll post in a month’s time and write about whether I’ve noticed a change, but I’m not sure it’ll be as conscious as that. We’ll have to wait and see…

 


Note: throughout this post I keep saying ‘mainstream.’ This is because I feel that ‘average’ or ‘normal’ aren’t really the right words. I’m trying to talk about that majority of users who are consumers, rather than makers or builders, of the web.

13 comments

  1. It’s something I do with ads (http://www.welcomebrand.co.uk/thoughts/browsing-an-uglier-web-on-purpose/) and I do recommend everyone do it from time to time for the reasons you mention.

    As designers, we’re a million miles away from how many “average” users operate on the net and if you work on any sort of larger scale projects and get the change to watch video tests of users it’ll open your eyes just how differently they use the web.

    It’s also worth reminding mac toting designers everywhere to check what their work looks like on a windows machine, you’d be amazed how many sites (designers portfolios in particular) I see on daily basis that are unreadable due to the differences in font rendering etc.

    J.

    Reply

    • Laura

      That’s a great post, and totally the same way of thinking.

      You’re right about Windows. I always test on Windows, but probably not taking as much into account as I should. I tend to look for broken things rather than beautiful things.

      Reply

  2. Gulben

    I’m very much interested hearing about your adventure. I can’t seem to get out of my anti-Google phase :-)

    Reply

  3. That’s a very good point. I’ve avoided Google+ because I don’t need it in my life, but perhaps I should take another look.

    Incidentally, I’ve just started using a Windows phone (won it at Reasons to be Appy). It’s probably going to be beneficial to me to simply use something that isn’t iOS for a little while, although when I can get my company phone I’ll be getting an iPhone :)

    But yeah, I think we could do more to be less immediately dismissive of certain things. I’ve avoided Pinterest because it looks a bit like a Tumblr clone, and I already have one of those. Maybe I should have a look since it’s important to just see what’s currently going on in modern site/app design.

    Bit of a crap comment, that. I haven’t properly woken up, give me a break!

    Reply

    • Laura

      No it’s a great comment, don’t be daft! That’s a good point about Google+ and Pinterest too, but now I’m starting to wonder where it stops. If we’re using everything, can we be paying attention to many things?

      Reply

    • @jonic In my opinion, Microsoft really nailed it with Windows Mobile. They have taken a simpler-is-better approach to their UI which has finally made it something that is user friendly and downright interesting to use. I’m not a Windows user in the real world, but I’ve already taken some inspiration from their mobile platform for UI.

      Reply

  4. Great post! I worry about this as well, trying to find a balance between what I want to use and what everyone in the world seems to be using. My initial reason for joining Twitter was just to understand what the rest of the world was doing, but I’m avoiding Pintrest because I can’t afford another time-suck, and I don’t see a real need for it in my life. And I have an Android phone instead of an iPhone because I want to know how “the other half” lives.

    But, I feel like a general awareness of other technologies we don’t personally use can often be enough… as long as you know it exists, there’s always the opportunity to find and talk to someone who does use it.

    On an unrelated note, tell me more about your Gmail hatred! Is it because it’s Google, or the service itself? And can I ask what you use instead? I’m trying to wean myself off it, but it’s proving difficult.

    Reply

    • Laura

      I find Gmail a bit odd, but I think it has improved recently. It’s Google themselves, I don’t like the idea of being the product, and I just get this overwhelming creepy feeling from them that it’s not in our favour to be used like this…

      Reply

  5. Great post, Laura. I signed up for Google + when it was first announced, then ditched it for about a year. Only recently have I started looking into it again, and only because of the business reasons (SEO nonsense, etc). I’m glad I did, because I think it could be a smarter, more engaging version of Facebook if everyone gave it a chance. I’m now embarrassed for “erring on the side of hipsters” and being so dismissive for so long.

    Reply

  6. Good to see such a self-aware post.

    It’s definitely true that designers and front-end developers interact with the web in a very different way from the “average” user. We’re certainly likely to be more informed, quicker to pick up on new trends and products. And, yes, often frustratingly hipster-ish in our ability to avoid things that are mainstream.

    But you’re absolutely right that to continue to simply behave in that way isn’t the most productive way to go about things. Except in the most specialized or niche projects, we’re all designing and developing for the average user. We need to be aware of that benchmark, and how best to address it.

    Certainly we can still try to push the boundaries while acknowledging the mainstream. That’s what the most successful products and services do. So many great successes occurred not because of market research and addressing a need or desire, but by making a cool product which *created* a market demand. That requires an understanding of the mainstream, definitely, but it also involves a desire not merely to remain generic.

    That’s the balance I want to keep. So much web design is self-referential and generic, and that’s bad. But understanding what works for the mainstream audience is vital in terms of pushing the boundaries in an effective way.

    Reply

  7. Nice and well thought out post.

    One of the biggest things I’ve learnt as a design student, is that its all well and good following trends and being hipster as such, however at the end of the day as designers we need to primarily design for non-designers.

    Obviously its more than okay to put in extra things that only people with a certain eye will pick out, typographic niceties and such like. But it’s all to easy to forget that the average user of the end product may well have a slowish computer, run windows and mainly use the internet for Facebook. Design decisions definitely need to be informed by these ‘mainstream’ scenarios.

    Reply

  8. Took me a while to learn this one myself. It’s our job to be well-versed in the norm in spite of the preferences we develop as experts. If we want to pull experiences in new and exciting directions, we need to know what the average case is in order for that direction to make sense. The real magic is when you can make well-designed experiences effortless and intuitive, almost invisible. It takes knowing the environment of the norm to do that.

    It’s like when you go back and watch a really good kids show and realize how much they put in to satisfy the adults that would also have to watch. In a way, our craft is like creating that kids show. In order to do it well, you have to know the psychology of children and how to appeal to them. And web literacy is still in its infancy. So we have to create for that environment, but with the depth and experience that we hold as specialists.

    Reply

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