Scopes of consistency

What does it meant to be “consistent”? As I noted in a conf call last week with a VP of Prod Mgmnt, this can be a tricky, even dangerous word to use with certain audiences (ahem) like engineers who take it extremely literally. Yet this word gets thrown about a lot when talking about a “good design”, like a natural reflex. In our internal mobile UX summit last week, this issue emerged again in the context of designing a “consistent experience” across multiple devices by various vendors featuring different OS’s (Android vs iPhone vs Blackberry, for example). This raised in my mind the need to clarify this critical word, in terms of “scoping the level of consistency”.

First at a high level, I would suggest that “consistency” does NOT mean reckless cookie-cutter carbon copying of an element all over the place. Instead, to be properly, smartly consistent you must consider the context of use, and what is appropriate: visually, behaviorally, and linguistically (for terminology matters like labels and tip text) It’s like the difference between the rote memorization of a speech versus the rhetorical nuancing of an argument. It involves an art and balance of tradeoffs that requires deliberation among expert peers (and validation with users).

Digging deeper, there seem to be certain “scopes” of being consistent as well:

– Consistency with a visual design system such as Apple Aqua or Adobe Aeon or Microsoft Aero. At Citrix we have a system called Symphony that is a unique Citrix-branded look-and-feel with certain colors and type styles, per our brand.

– Consistency within a particular platform OS, such as iOS or Android or Blackberry which handle notifications and touch gestures in slightly different ways, as part of their “worldview”. When a user buys an Android device, she is buying into that worldview and all its joys and quirks. Ditto for other mobile platforms. In other words, “When in Rome…do as the Romans do” :-)

– Consistency within your product, regardless of platform or visual design system, declaring this is the way this product behavior works period.

Yet I have no answers :-) I am still not sure what the proper precedence level is among these scopes–it likely varies across teams and companies–but at least identifying them (and sussing out the critical threads that connect product designs together) will enable a productive debate about what’s truly most important and how to achieve a family feel.

At the end of the day, this is what matters–the voice of the products and their consistency in speaking a cohesive, balanced, persuasive tone to the target audience to encourage a positive experience overall. Evernote, Netflix, Dropbox, and Kindle Reader App all do this very well, as shown below:


And in doing so, achieving and persisting an almost intuitive sense of design integrity that is deeper than surface styles, but how much of a family relationship there is among the offerings. Kinda like “blood is thicker than water” ;-) That’s what consistency is all about.

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