UX gone wild!Nature’s guide to user experience
Charu Chaudhari /
Nature is all around us. It is the world we live in, breathe in, and interact with every moment of our lives. It has taught us how delicious mangoes are, how dangerous fire can be, and how fun dancing in the rain is. Everything we need to survive in this world; we learn from nature. So, it’s only logical that it would have some lessons about UX design as well.
With this thought in my mind, I set out to uncover what wealth of knowledge nature had to bestow upon us UX designers. To start with, I tried to understand what it does best – look pretty!
Ever wonder why we find so much beauty in nature?
I have always been amazed at the abundance of beauty in nature. It all seems quite unreal and random, almost whimsical. But it turns out there is a way to formulate and replicate beauty to some extent. It is not as abstract and unattainable as we think, after all.
Let’s look at these pictures.
Do you notice any similarities? The tree branches, the arteries and veins in the lungs and the lightning all form the same type of pattern. This pattern is called a fractal. Different types of fractals form unique patterns. Everything we see in nature follows a type of fractal pattern – clouds, mountains, snowflakes, etc.
Let’s look at a few more images.
These patterns are also a type of fractal called Tessellations.
The Golden Ratio is another such pattern that creates the most pleasing and beautiful configurations. It is a mathematical ratio (1.618) that composes shapes that are balanced and organic. There are innumerable examples of the Golden Spiral in nature.
Beautiful, isn’t it? So even though nature seems contradictory in some respects, it is actually quite consistent in exhibiting these patterns. We have been imbibing these patterns around us through several past generations and have now become hard-wired to associate a meaning to them. If something conforms to the patterns found in nature, we find it visually appealing.
Some of the most beautiful art, architecture and design created by humans also follow the golden ratio.
But why does beauty matter in UX?
There is a UX principle called The Aesthetic – Usability Effect which states that users often perceive aesthetically pleasing design to be more usable. And herein lies the answer! Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can create a very user-friendly interface just by creating a good looking one. But it unquestionably highlights the importance good UI in UX. Essentially, by incorporating one of these patterns into our designs, we will be able to make them more visually appealing and consequently, more usable.
Here is an example of an interface that doesn’t employ the golden ratio versus one that does.
The screen that is divided using the golden ratio seems so much more approachable and usable when compared to the other. The golden ratio has significance in many UI design principles like typography, layouts, the visuals being used, etc.
When we look around, we not only observe the patterns. We are also paying close attention to their symmetry and the shapes that constitute them.
In nature, symmetry indicates health, strength and fertility.
Many animals (including humans) look for symmetry in their mates. Nature has taught us to reward it, and hence symmetry in other aspects also gives us a sense of assurance.
Let’s take a look at these UI designs.
This page looks quite overwhelming and unintuitive. The layout is not symmetrical and the grids are not aligned to each other. Now, let’s look at the following page.
See the difference? This layout follows a very clear structure which ensure symmetry. It automatically becomes clearer and a worthwhile experience.
Similarly, shapes also have an important role to play. Physical shapes in our world when translated to digital ones on our screens still hold the same affordances for us. Even though we are simply viewing them on our screens, we still tend to judge how they might feel and this creates an unconscious response in our brains.
Thorns, cliffs, or other things that have pointy, sharp edges make us uncomfortable and alert.
Whereas, flowers are easy to touch and hold. So we tend to perceive rounded and smooth corners as safe and approachable, even if we are just viewing them on a digital platform.
Implementing softer edges, slight shadows and gradients in our UI help us make it easier on the eyes. It also inculcates a sense of safety and comfort.
All of the above mentioned instances might seem like details that are imperceptible to our eyes. But these are subconscious processes that help us navigate the world, identify stimuli, and make decisions. Unsurprisingly, this innate ability of ours is not limited to identifying only the visual patterns. We are also discerning touch sensations, taste, sounds, and smells.
So why should we restrict UX to just the visuals?
The most pleasurable experiences are the ones that cater to all five of our senses.
Imagine you are standing in the middle of a meadow. What are the different sensations you feel in this moment? You would be looking out on a beautiful expanse of green grass flowing in the breeze. The same breeze carrying the scent of the magnolia flower, you would feel on your face. You would also be hearing some birds chirp, maybe the cows mooing along. Now imagine picking a few berries from the nearby shrub and eating them fresh! Ah! How exquisite!
So, you see? All five of your senses are being prompted in a perfect harmony to create an exhilarating experience for you!
But most of digital interfaces cater only to one out of five senses.
In our designs, we should attempt to arouse as many of our senses as possible to bring the interfaces to life.
Some ways to awaken more of our senses is by incorporating the following in our designs-
- Micro interactions, animations, videos and gestures
- Haptics and tactile feedback
All of the above ideas are nuances that make an interface stand out. They help us communicate the product’s ethos and what it stands for. This can be friendly, authoritative, sincere, etc. Essentially, these are all signals that advertise danger, safety, nutrition and fertility. All living things are in a continuous process of honing their characteristics, assimilating them and leveraging the above-mentioned methodologies to create an identity.
Have you ever seen a eucalyptus leaf on a cactus plant? Or giraffe’s patterns on a tiger? Nature maintains consistency in its branding. An elephant in India and one in South Africa do not look exactly the same, but they still have the long trunk that characterizes elephants. Maintaining consistency in our designs also helps create an identity and a brand for the product.
Survival of the fittest
Now that we’ve explored all our senses, what other lessons can be learnt from nature? We know that the seasons change throughout the year, and we’ve learnt to adapt to them. We know if the ground starts shaking, it’s an earthquake and that we need to run to an open field. So, we not only learn to recognize nature’s signals, but we also learn its processes.
The cute little goldfish in your water tank can grow to a much bigger size if it is transferred to a larger water body like a lake. It actually becomes a menace to the ecosystem by over – populating it and hunting down other fishes in the lake.
Similarly, the little Pothos plant we all love grows to a massive size in the wild.
This extra-ordinary capability comes from the flexibility nature affords itself. Nothing in nature is set in stone (well, except of course, our fossilized ancestors). And there are no rules that can’t be broken. This freedom, this imperviousness ensures that it flourishes. Life prevails, no matter the context. It adapts and aligns itself to the context and thrives.
Another example of how context dictates our associations is Color Theory. The reason we have meanings and feelings associated with colors is the same – nature has taught us to comprehend them a certain way.
Red is the color of blood and so we view it as dangerous.
But roses are red in color too. And they inspire feelings of love.
In short, nature is contextual. And so should be UX. As UX designers, the onus is on us to understand the space for our product and how our designs can grow.
If Cred (the finance app) modified its experience to be similar to Duolingo (the gamified language learning app), it’s safe to say that it would be on its path to extinction. The same way UX assessment tools like no scroll & number of clicks depend on the context of the interface. With the arrival of social media through platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, infinite scroll is not a hindrance anymore but instead, it encourages stickiness of the user.
So, everything here depends on the context and that’s the key to good user experience as well. Understanding the context and then designing for it will ensure that we follow the most organic and natural process, which will in turn, create the most intuitive and easy to use system.
One of the best examples of an iterative and continuous process is evolution. The species progress and refine their traits and characteristics to survive. Species develop new traits and qualities in the form of mutations. If this new trait is favourable for the creature’s survival, it ends up becoming a common trait of the species. If not, it is discarded and the focus shifts on another trait that helps develop the species.
In this image, you can see the some branches of Humans that eventually went extinct. This is very similar to an ideal user experience design approach. We create wireframes, mock-ups and prototypes by iterating on them. At each iteration we retain the changes that help the user experience and eliminate the ones that don’t.
Another important lesson to learn from evolution is destruction of what doesn’t work.
As humans and technology evolve more and more rules will go obsolete. Newer sets of principles will come into play and the maxims we deem important today will eventually fade away. For example, showing a hover state of a button is important on desktop but the same no longer applies to a mobile interface.
Here at ZEUX, we have a motto – Create. Modify. Destroy. We create a concept. Iterate over it to make improvements. In this process, even though the first version was crucial to arrive at the final one, we discard it in order to make the improvements. Exactly like evolution.
An organic approach to design
Nature can teach us a lot about user experience design. It can help us ground ourselves, establish empathy and create exceptional experiences. Following a nature inspired design approach will evidently make our designs more user centric because our users are a part of nature. We are a part of it. Fundamentally, we aren’t another entity. We are nature. So, let’s connect with ourselves to design for ourselves.