Category Archives: User experience

Creating a UX design pattern library for Digital Humanities projects

Recently I posted some thoughts about how emerging trends in the field of user experience (UX) design might be embedded in our project design and development process. In this post I’m going to discuss this further, concentrating on the UX pattern library the user interface (UI) team are developing.

What is a UX pattern library?

Designers and developers in the DDH research team work on a number of projects with diverse design and development requirements but in terms of UI design we often find we have similar problems we need to solve. For example, these might include designing tools for surfacing content such as search and browse mechanisms, ways to facilitate collaborative editing of images or documents or managing a user’s workflow.

A pattern library is a way of describing the interaction methods we might use to solve common design problems. When faced with a problem on a project it can act as the first port of call for a designer or developer and help them understand which tool they should use to deal with the particular problem they are facing.

In addition to textual descriptions and images of various interaction methods the library can also contain example code snippets that developers can copy and paste, adapting them as necessary to the needs of their projects.

What are the advantages of a pattern library?

At its most basic a pattern library prevents the need for designers and developers to “reinvent the wheel” the next time they need to design or implement an aspect of a user interface. This saves time and reduces the need for developers to refer to design staff or to create their own untested solutions.

Beyond this, it also ensures consistency in terms of user interface design, not just within a project but across multiple projects. By using common patterns which are recognisable to users we reduce the cognitive load on them by not requiring them to constantly learn how to use new tools; in other words it enhances usability.

Inspiration for the patterns might come from previous projects we have worked on, or on solutions from beyond the field of digital humanities. For instance, when we were considering best practice solutions for faceted browsing we looked at both our previous implementations and examples from the field of e-commerce. Our key concerns are enabling our users to achieve their goals (e.g. locating relevant information in a search or browse) and doing this in a way that is intuitive and as simple as possible. Doing so removes the barriers to using resources and as a result hopefully promotes engagement with them.

Why another pattern library?

A number of UI design pattern libraries have already been published, including:

Some of these (e.g. BBC and Mailchimp) are focussed on a particular brand or product, others such as UI Patterns and the Yahoo library are more general. Although these have been useful as a starting point we felt we needed to have a library that reflected the kinds of issues we face in digital humanities projects—not just around issues of searching/browsing and workflow mentioned earlier but also ones which address the traditional concerns of humanists, such as reading long-form texts, comparing editions and viewing cross-references and footnotes.

Does a pattern library inhibit innovation?

A critique that might be levelled at pattern libraries is that they can stifle innovation or creativity in interface design. This only really becomes an issue if a library becomes a static document which is not updated to reflect emerging or even experimental patterns. The web in particular is an ever-changing environment: new trends and technologies are constantly emerging which can affect how user interfaces are designed and implemented; experimentation drives web design forward.

However, we should always be asking ourselves how a user interface element allows a user to complete her goals. For instance, does that whizzy data visualisation really help the user to make sense of a data set, or is it just a bunch of confusing overlapping lines? Do users really appreciate their browser scrollbar suddenly behaving in a different way on one website? If untested or implemented badly UI elements may run the danger of becoming “anti-patterns” that frustrate or actively hinder the user.

Next steps

We are currently in the process of identifying, describing and creating code snippets for the most common design patterns. We are creating descriptions on an internal Wiki and developing code snippets in a Github repository. Once we have a critical mass of patterns described and gathered feedback on them we plan to publish the descriptions on a publicly available website, linked through to an open source project containing the code snippets.

Reporting from MEX 2013

I recently struggled to get back into writing, whether for lack of time or for the ability to focus on one single subject. And that’s why it took me so long to report back about my experience at MEX, last September.

MEX is a conference about mobile user experience that happens periodically in London. As they put it themselves:

MEX is an event focused on user modes as the raw ingredients of digital experience across phones, tablets, PCs, wearables and more. Learn from expert speakers, develop skills & ideas in facilitated creative sessions and gain lifelong access to a network of fellow pioneers.

I applied for a scholarship and, luckily enough, I was granted a place.

The round of speakers was pretty impressive and I was looking forward to find out more about the latest in the field.

My goals

Since I have only recently started to approach UX in a more didactic way rather than instinctively (Finally! You say, I agree), I wanted to find out:

  • How much of what I do by instinct is right and how much is wrong
  • How do you sell UX to a client?
  • How much psychology is involved?
  • Tips on how to approach UX

The talks


I enjoyed Sofia Svanteson and Per Nordqvist‘s enthusiasm while presenting their ‘Explore’ talk, on how task based interactions are becoming limited, they only work when a user has a specific goal to achieve. James Taplin told us how technology and focus on UX can help improve the world promoting the ‘Principal Sustainability’. I learnt how much easier could the process of learning be, when you get the UX right, as Arun Vasudeva showcased some examples of rich content integration in education.
The interesting concept of co-creation was mentioned by Lennart Andersson, while Ben Pirt showed us how badly UX is implemented in hardware design! Where is the power button?
Jason DaPonte talked about his Sunday Drive app and hinted at the still unutilised potentials to integrate UI with existing devices (car navigation systems in this case).
Then we learnt how the majority of young users don’t listen to digital music in a ‘traditional’ way anymore, they prefer platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Grooveshark and how this generates an opportunity for developing a new design and offer a different experience. As Brittney Bean introduced us to her new project Songdrop between a joke and the other.

After all this information in one single day I wasn’t sure I could absorb more on day 2, but I did.

I discovered my inner (Forrest) Gump, as James Haliburton put it. How our receptive mode depends on context and spontaneity and how indeterminate and non-committal it can be.
Amy Huckfield intends to improve the life of children with ADHD with her research ‘Children with ADHD: The untapped Well of Future Creatives’, basically helping the child re-engage and re-focus after losing attention through an interactive wristband.
Rich Clayton explains how his Travel Time app could help business analyse their geographic data in an affordable way, because time could be more important than distance.
And finally Davide “Folletto” Casali tells us that 70% of the projects fail because of lack of users’ acceptance. We tend to adapt the tools we have, rather then look for the right ones to satisfy our needs, even when developing. To quote Bruno Munari:
“Complicare è semplice. Semplificare è difficile.” (To complicate is easy. To simplify is difficult.)

The ‘Creative sessions’

I didn’t particularly enjoy the Creative Sessions. Attendees were split in groups and were supposed to discuss and explore different topics. I was in the Create group and to date I am not sure what our objectives were. Maybe the topic was too broad. We ended up starting various interesting conversations on how to define a currency other than money to help potential users (we had set our target on students as an example), but we ended up with few ideas on a platform that could help with this currency exchange rather than an idea on how to enhance creation through user experience.


I find myself using a fairly common approach to user experience design, although I wasn’t aware I was doing it. That means there is a lot of room for improvement and definitely UX is becoming a conscious part of my design since stage one of sketching from now on.

Is UX changing?
Yes, it is. User are getting ‘smarter’ and UX needs to adapt quickly and continuously. Fairly obvious, but it’s because it’s obvious that it’s easy to forget. It’s not just the devices that are changing, users are too.
People want rich(-er) content, they look for it, feeling like they are making their own choices, but they do look for guidance and good UX design can be that guide.

Off topic things I learnt

The th sound is really a challenge for us Italians (I hope Davide “Folletto” Casali won’t get offended by this comment).
But I also learnt that the letter j makes Scandinavians struggle.

Lean UX in DH projects

As the user experience (UX) lead (and often sole UX practitioner) in a small team of software developers I’ve often had to adopt a pragmatic approach to incorporating a UX workflow into our project work. This has involved keeping clear of trendy methodologies and buzzwords, instead focusing on the key outcomes of creating the best possible user experience for the end-users of our products. To do this we follow a user-centred design process wherever possible, undertaking research with our target user groups, designing interfaces that allow them to achieve their goals and testing our designs with “real” users in the form of one-to-one usability testing.

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