“sometimes it’s better to let a dummy take the crash”
(n) An imitation of a real or original object, intended to be used as a practical substitute. (via thefreedictionary.com)
A note for designers:
As designers, it’s often tempting to fall into the trap of thinking our clients are dumb. Most of them are not, they just don’t know our field. As experts, it’s part of our job to explain concepts that we take for granted, but may be new or not that obvious to a client or stakeholder. There are painless and effective ways to do so. This is one of them.
The Elevator Paradigm
You know those times when a client resists paring down section labels for fear that something important may be overlooked? How do you choose between orientation or expanding knowledge? Can’t both live together? The bottom line is that, in most cases, when you’re driving there’s not much time to read. Elevator panels or automobile dashboards are great real-life examples of this. There’s a reason why most mall and large buildings place their floor directories outside of the elevators themselves: the main traveling vehicle is not the best place for informational intake.
How it works
So what happens when navigation labels are too large? Does the extra knowledge really help? By offering the absurd image of an elevator with lengthy paragraphs of text adjoining each button we help our stakeholders draw from their personal experience and relate more immediately to the point we want to drive home: when you’re trying to get to a certain place the priority is to identify the available options, make a decision and act on it. Learning can (and should) happen before or after, but only gets in the way if it occurs during the navigation process.
When to use
You want to resort to the elevator paradigm whenever you find yourself in a situation where the labels in a user interface need to be approved, but your client offers resistance to your team’s attempts to streamline these into manageable chunks. This may be due to one or several of the following:
- A fear that if you omit information in the labels or category titles, users may misinterpret features or overlook available choices.
- The suspicion that what’s driving your recommendation is a designer’s/artistic inclination to keep things tidy and visually “neat” to the detriment of informational relevance.
- A mistrust for your ability to understand the nature of their business needs often worded in thoughts such as “this designer may be talented but doesn’t really know or understand my customers.”
- The usual onanistic impulse we all occasionally display of reveling in what we think is cool about our stuff, instead of focusing on what the user really needs from it.
The elevator paradigm can help mitigate these factors. It will allow you to bring the focus back to the end-user, the customer, your target audience; it will help you draw the stakeholders’ attention to key elements such as legibility, identification or interface affordances. It will also help avoid unnecessary distractions such as which terminology needs to be used in order to appease a certain department etc. Your approvers and stakeholders will also see that you care enough not just to understand their business but to understand the needs of their clients, and as a result will place more trust and respect into your decision process, making them your accomplices, rather than your obstacle.
Famous last words
Having said all of this let’s remember that there are always exceptions to rules. Indeed, there is no real substitute for testing in order to gain insights on how to create a successful user experience. Test if you can, search for feedback where and when possible and keep an open mind about the results. If this example proves you wrong that’s not a bad thing either, since it will help you get on the right track faster. Metaphors like these are just aids for you to figure out the best path for a particular solution. Whether the analogy serves to enlighten your partners or whether it proves your assumptions incorrect and helps you adequately frame the design problem is immaterial. What’s important is that you nail the final product, and learn a little bit as a result.