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Holistic User Experience: not a matter of "New Age"

1 January 2018
Michal Blumenfeld Sagi
ux charts

Long before the dawn of the age of "fake news" in which the credibility of all news reports is challenged, prior to post modernism revealing the subjectivity of reality and its dependence on the eye of the beholder, the Gestalt theory claimed that our perception dictates the reality which we experience.

Gestalt is German for form, template, pattern. The theory deals with our visual spatial perception and it is natural that Max Wertheimer, the theory's originator, reached his insights via a viewing experience. What he viewed was a sequence of flashing lights near a train junction. What caught his attention was his impression of the light "skipping" from one light to the other (although objectively these lights flashed one after the other). In other words, Wertheimer experienced an illusion of continuous motion between elements though objectively no such motion occurred. This insight still has implications on graphic design.

During the 1930s, German psychologists developed this insight into a theory regarding the way in which our brain tends to organize visual elements into groups. According to the theory, our perception process involves holistically disciplining elements by internal order. According to Gestalt, every encounter with the external world involves an initial conciseness template which interprets our sensory input and dictates our perception and interpretation.We search for context, for links between elements (even if such a connection is objectively nonexistent!) because we aspire to experience them as an organized template rather than an assortment of items. To use Wertheimer's student, Kurt Koffka's paraphrase of the Aristotelian phrase "the whole is other than the sum of the parts".


A correct understanding of the way we generate these links can assist us when considering UX. A portal is a fine example of a whole comprised of separate elements. These elements do not share design, character, purpose, etc. A document library is totally different from a navigation bar yet together with other elements they comprise a whole. Implementing Gestalt principles in the setup and design process can assist us in creating a whole which provides users with a more efficient and intuitive experience. Minimalistic yet effective design which relies on the users' perceptual links and associations can provide a holistic, even harmonious experience.


So, which Gestalt principles may prove useful?

  1. Proximity- objects each other tend to be associated one to another. The physical proximity applies a group scheme to them. Elements can be linked by physical location. The association will be made by users intuitively.

  2. Similarity- a complimentary principle is the principle of similarity. We tend to group elements that share a characteristic, such as shape or color. If we want to enhance the link between separate elements we can manipulate their proximity and similarity.

  3. Continuity- remember Wertheimer's flashing lights? We search for continuity and motion even in its absence; objects directed at the same direction will be perceived as a sequence. Alternating messages will generate a sense of motion. A sequence of 3 or more similar objects assists users in identifying patterns. A dramatic interruption of continuity and sequence may generate confusion and dissonance.

  4. Closure- although the contour of some spaces isn't fully closed, users will probably nevertheless close them mentally and complete the "appropriate" shape. We search for distinct boundaries and templates. When organizing an interface, we can form a framework around the elements or organize them in form that might not be complete yet will be completed by users nonetheless.

  5. Simplicity- we tend to simplify i.e. search for the simplest possible explanation.

    We therefore prefer a simple arrangement. Simple is always better.

    We aspire to attain a harmonious perception; this doesn't imply uniformity and certainly not monochrome dullness. Nevertheless, considering element organization can create a more holistic user experience.

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