When Design Worlds Collide: De-Linearity in UX Design

Look at any list of buzzwords or “hot new trends” in UX design, and you’ll surely find “de-linearity” among them. But what is it really, and why does it matter right now?

In short, de-linearity is the concept of giving users a number of ways to accomplish a task rather than requiring them to perform a single precise set of actions to accomplish that same task.

It matters because consumers demand it, whether they know this or not. But does that mean it’s the only way forward? Hopefully not.

Linearity Through the Ages

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Throughout recent history, the prevailing notion that simplicity is a prerequisite for usability has led to user experiences that don’t vary, no matter who the user is.

Back in the ’90s, linear flows and “install wizards” were all the rage. You’d typically find these when setting up software for the first time. In the mobile software world, the “wizard” model essentially became the way that all apps function. People using a mobile app expected to walk through a scripted path and get a result.

In the context of a mobile app like Uber, a simple linear path — from opening the app to ordering a ride — is usually all that’s needed. But increasingly, users of mobile and web applications want the freedom to navigate an interface on their own terms, free of the restraints that linear design imposes.

Of course, most software applications have some elements of de-linearity already built in — otherwise, they’d be unusable. Any app with five navigation tabs at the bottom demonstrates de-linearity. Likewise, any type of form or input that allows for inline editing, like a password or username, is an example of de-linearity.

In practice, including a number of paths from one touchpoint to the next is extremely useful. It ultimately leads to more satisfied users and higher conversion rates. But as a governing philosophy, it will also lead to a few challenges for designers.

The Paths Less Traveled

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Not all software design is created equal. In mobile applications, where real estate is extremely limited, you want to make sure people immediately understand the purpose of your app and can quickly and intuitively use it to fulfill that purpose. Linearity helps users get to the point.

That’s because linear paths leave no room for ambiguity. A leads to B, which leads to C, allowing users to do one thing — like book a room, make a calculation, or post a photo — in the easiest way possible. Implement a de-linear design where A, B, and C could all lead to dozens of other paths and you risk overwhelming your users.

When you define single pathways to do something within your app, you make it easier for users to perform vital functions. And that ease of use is what keeps them coming back. A confused user is an ex-user.

But mobile design has very distinct requirements compared to desktop or web-based software. For desktop and web, a de-linear user experience often makes more sense. In fact, for most software in these categories, inserting moments of linearity creates exceptions and typically serves to help users perform fundamental tasks like setting up an account or getting acquainted with a new concept.

The wonderful thing about a de-linear flow is that it means there’s no one way to do something. A great example of this is when you view a photo on Facebook on iOS. You double-tap to open, but to dismiss the photo, you can either tap the X at the top left, or you can swipe down on the photo. Similarly, in many iOS applications, such as Twitter, you can tap the “back” button to return, but you can also pull the content back from the left.

These are all instances in which the designer gives users multiple paths to the same function while also making sure the key flow is visible and apparent. And that last bit is critical.

The Sweet Spot

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It’s time to set aside the idea of the one-size-fits-all approach. Trying to stay strictly linear (or strictly de-linear) will inevitably cause you to ignore your users’ needs.

If, in the course of a software’s normal flow, there’s a natural opportunity to enable users to tap into a certain function, implement it. Whenever it makes sense in the flow of the application, give users a better experience by giving them options.

But whenever a user needs to enter information, linearity becomes your best ally. Likewise, if a user is setting up an account or creating a new post in a CMS, a linear path is going to be the least confusing. Linearity has the power to make overwhelmingly complex tasks simple to accomplish.

Companies like TurboTax and H&R Block walk users through each section of information, from one digestible chunk to the next. Enter your personal details, then save. Enter your income statements, then click “next.” It’s as simple as that.

Again, however, a strictly linear approach is rare among web-based software programs.

Simply put, when making software, there should be no required litmus test such as “all flows must be de-linear.” The opposite holds true, as well. You must give users the best experience possible. Thus, your goal as a designer should be to utilize the absolute best methodology you can, not a particular absolute methodology.