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What Gardening Can Teach Us About User Experience Design

October 15, 2013

We grew basil in our garden this yearI like gardening. There is something so rewarding about growing your own food. But it isn’t easy: it takes time, know-how, and some basic principles to do it successfully. Done right, gardening can actually save you money by cutting down on your grocery bill. But if you don’t maximize the space you have, it’s just hobby.

It turns out this is exactly the same for user experience and interface design. And, in fact, many organizations approach UX more like a hobby than something that will actually save them money and create value. So without creating too many far-fetched metaphors, this post aims to look at how gardening principles can make us better designers of user experiences and application interfaces. Even if you’re not a gardener, hang on because there’s a whole crop of good stuff to take note of.

1. Have a goal. If we don’t know why we’re growing vegetables or what we will do with them, then we’re just playing around and we won’t get much out of it. So we always make goals: to grow 25% of our produce, to reduce our grocery expense by $100 a month, or to preserve food by canning. Whatever the goal is, knowing the target informs every decision we make: what seeds to buy, how large the garden should be, or what supplies we need. If your team doesn’t know the goals of the application, they won’t know how to design it so that they’re solving real problems instead of just playing around with a pretty interface.

2. Test first. Most people don’t do it, but you should test your soil before you plant to find out what you’re dealing with. If it’s too acidic, low on iron, or high in calcium… it can create issues for the plants you want to grow. In user experience design, we must do user testing before we begin. Where are the pain points? What problems can we solve? We need to check our UX soil regularly throughout the season to make sure it’s actually improving. If your plant isn’t producing, test the soil. It’s probably missing a vital nutrient in the same way an app can suffer when it’s missing important parts.

3. Don’t create a new technique. While it’s possible you’ll get lucky, you usually shouldn’t try to invent a new gardening technique in the hopes of getting better results. Instead, find an expert who has a tried-and-true method and follow it. Nothing could be truer for UX design. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. Find an expert and learn from them. Whether you need a consultant to design it for you or training so you can do it yourself, hiring a UX expert will always yield better results.

4. The layout makes a difference. Where the garden is physically located, the surrounding environment, and which direction it faces all dictate the types of things you can grow and where you’ll be able to plant them. But in most cases, you want a large sunny area with no obstructions (like trees or a fence). In app design, the overall layout makes a big difference and there are recognized design patterns that work. If your conversion rates aren’t what you want them to be, perhaps your Sign Up button is in a shady part of the garden.

5. Some things don’t go together. You have to be careful where you put your plants and choose neighbors that compliment each other with the nutrients they take and replace in the soil. For example, the brassica family of vegetables (like kale or cabbage) should not be placed near tomatoes because they steal nutrients. In user experience design, we don’t want one UI control to take away from another. Putting two important buttons side-by-side can steal attention. Always carefully consider how you choose to combine elements for maximum efficiency.

6. Frequent iteration yields better results. You have to change around your garden to get a better crop. Whether it’s trying new combinations of plants or a method of succession planting: you don’t just plant a garden and walk away. If you design your app but then never come back to check on it, it won’t yield the results you want. Even if you think it’s going well, do some usability checks or set-up an A/B test.

7. It’s not easy. Many people think they can plant a packet of seeds and come back to find a garden full of fresh produce. Unfortunately, this is also how many organizations approach user experience design. They believe they can grab a grid system and UI kit and come back to find a devoted user base. While this approach can yield a functional application, it does not create the sort of rewarding experience that you’ll need to be successful.

My goal, whether I’m designing an app with my clients or training them on user experience, is to help organizations be better designers even if they’re not designers.

Need some gardening tips for your app? Could your team use some better tools for growing user experiences? I can help you design your custom application or train your team how to do it better. Contact me today and reap the harvest from a well-designed application.