Designed Degradations: UX Patterns for Hostile Environments

As a designer, sometimes I feel liberated because someone designed absolutely everything in the world.

Just think about it. This website, your computer, your bed, your clothes, your apartment, the keys to your car, your car.

Knowing that everything went through a design process is liberating because it demystifies the path between “undesigned” and “designed.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone is a designer. At least not purposefully. Design is factual, but not everyone is a good designer, and that’s why people like me still have a job.

Good design is necessary because it enables creating of artifacts and concepts that can perform in an imperfect and chaotic world.

Usually, most products perform ideally in what designers call “happy paths,” a set of ideal conditions and scenarios required for a design to perform successfully. However, the most realistic “paths” are actually “unhappy paths.” It is because of these “unhappy paths” that many products fail in real-life conditions.

Unlike conventional designs, excellent designs can circumvent the existence of “unhappy” conditions and the influence of other low-performance designs. This requires the new design to lower its performance, and although this is not ideal, this is usually a trade-off that can help maximize the existing conditions.

This maximization is what I call Designed Degradation.

One great example of an excellent Designed Degradation that works in a highly constrained and poorly designed environment is the table in the picture below.

Take a couple of seconds to see the image and analyze what’s going on:

Still, confused? Look at the gap in the last third of the table. The one that makes it look like a different table:

Ok, so before I jump into the explanation, let me add some context first.

This table is located in a Chipotle restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA. Since I don’t cook, I spent an excessive amount of time analyzing this location during my time in Pittsburgh.

There are some important things to note about this restaurant:

  • This Chipotle is at least 30% smaller than a traditional Chipotle.

  • This Chipotle is located in a fast-growing area that has been rapidly adding residential buildings, businesses, and office spaces. The traffic in this Chipotle has been likely growing since it opened.

  • Because of its location, the lease for this space is likely expensive. This means that any business that operates in the area needs to optimize the available real estate to serve guests still safely.

As you can see, this is a sub-optimal environment for a business that traditionally operates in spaces that are 30% larger. But because of its location, this business is expected to perform as well or even better than other similar businesses in less active areas.

How can you achieve that performance given the existing physical space constraints?

You can implement many techniques to enhance foot traffic in a physical business, but one that stands out in this restaurant is their use of bar tables.

The designer of this table understood that the problem to solve with this small location was finding a balance between the maximum amount of individual diner guests eating at the restaurant and the minimum amount of space used without sacrificing the perception of personal boundaries.

Adding the small gap in the last third of the table shows an exponential increase in the value that it provides given such a small space. A table that only can seat a single party automatically becomes a table that can seat two parties in any of the following arrangements:

  • Party of 4 / Party of 2

  • Party of 4 / Single Guest

  • Party of 3 / Party of 2

  • Party of 3 / Single Guest

  • Party of 2 / Party of 2

  • Single Guest / Single Guest

Although this affordance seems disruptive and perhaps ugly, it is the perfect example of a Designed Degradation that helps the user.

We can all agree that the ideal scenario has a restaurant that is 3o% larger and that could fit more tables. We can also agree that we all want to avoid that last third of the table as much as we can. But in a scenario where no other table is available, most people will use it. The world is wildly imperfect, and that’s where these cleverly Designed Degradations can help provide value to a final user.

Designed Degradations in Software

Designed Degradations play a unique role in the creation of good software user experiences. Although computers usually provide an experience that exceeds most analog human processes, there are a series of conditions in which computers can become more frustrating than helpful.

Usually, these conditions are the result of software running in low-performance machines, devices, or environments. Some common examples of sub-optimal conditions are a computer with low processing power, little memory, a low-resolution screen, or a bad internet connection.

Other less common conditions are poor light conditions, the environmental temperature that affects a device's computing performance, poorly designed peripherals, poor device form factors (handling, size, materials), and other similar intrinsic and extrinsic physical conditions.

Software Designers rarely, if ever, think about the existence of these conditions. For instance, modern software design rarely accounts for scenarios like random connectivity issues. Granted, most users will access the resource through a solid/stable connection, but those who don’t aren’t given a degraded option that could fit their particular situation.

However, designers are getting more conscious about some of these unavoidable scenarios and are starting to design mechanics that enable graceful degradations. Here is a list of standard and modern Designed Degradations in software:

  • Poor battery life is an unavoidable condition of smartphones. In iOS, Apple provides a “Low Power Mode” that reduces power consumption by disabling certain non-critical features. This is a Designed Degradation that allows Apple to mitigate battery life issues.

  • Netflix automatically adjusts the streaming bitrate based on things like bandwidth, latency, device, and location. Although most people would like to watch their content in sharp Full HD or 4K, Netflix degrades the streaming quality to avoid interruptions and preserve the overall quality. This Designed Degradation allows Netflix to provide its service to customers that are not in optimal streaming conditions.

  • Facebook provides an offline tolerant experience by caching a large portion of the user timeline and allowing users to queue posts that automatically get uploaded when a connection is available. This is a Designed Degradation that enables a partial interaction without relying on an internet connection (instead of rendering the app useless).

Designed Degradations or Features?

Designed Degradations are functional. They give products, a mechanic to alternatively serve its final users. Because of this, sometimes Designed Degradations are seen as full-rounded features. However, from a product point of view is essential to avoid seeing them as marketable or baseline features.

These kinds of degradations exist to mitigate issues, not to make products more appealing.

This is a crucial distinction that can help product and design teams make critical decisions when prioritizing roadmaps and executing existing ideas. If the initial design process results in a product with substantial degradations in its foundation, you’re probably building the wrong product or building for the wrong market.

Final Thoughts

Designed Degradations are an essential concept to build and execute the right design strategies. Designers should be aware of the complex nature of implementing Designed Degradations and use them wisely to help their products succeed in conditions that are not optimal.

Designed Degradations can also behave as signals of work that are not perfectly aligned with a market or a product vision. Although they can help extend the capacity of products, they can also be clear indicators of mediocre solutions (especially when a product relies extensively on these degradations).

An excellent approach to evaluate a potential Designed Degradation is to stop and think for a minute: Would this help my users with their possible frustration, or would it accelerate their defeat? Although this exercise sounds like unnecessary rhetoric, you will be surprised that it would be the latter most of the time.

Note: Designed Degradation is a term that I coined for the sake of this article. If you’re more interested in this topic, here are some resources on related/homologous concepts.