papers & articles

Pattern Language in Interface Design


Human beings are animals of habit. As practicality goes, what works for us the first time will most likely work for us again and again. For structural and spatial matters, the same idea can be applied. Christopher Alexander, renowned architect and now retired professor, created a pattern language that drew from the models of classical architecture to create a prototype for all architects to use to build successful and long-standing buildings. Alexander’s ideas were revolutionary because they are grounded in the conviction that the actual users of a building understand what they need more than the architect. Therefore, classic patterns of buildings and building organization that have survived the tests of time are upheld and the architect takes into account the aesthetic design and practicality.

Although seemingly over-simplified because of the general notion that architecture is complicated, the genius behind Alexander’s conclusion is that we can use patterns and apply them to organized space. Alexander relied on the user to determine the patterns that are successful. What we at VIRTUALTRIP take from his principle is that we can also create online spaces that are successful, and that can act as templates for future projects and ensure success. Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone introduced the comparison in their guide to social user interface Designing Social Interfaces. They make the link that what Christopher Alexander asserted for architecture can also be applied to computer software. Particularly in cases where the target user is the general public does the website need to have good usability, making patterns applicable.

An example of a successful pattern is the one we developed for the Argentina’s Bicentenario website. The event marked the 200th year since Argentina’s independence and attracted international attention with parades, cultural events and concerts. The page had to be specifically laid out in a way that took into account the usability because of the quantity and diversity of users. The idea was to make a site for visitors of all different backgrounds, ages and nationalities to learn about everything from upcoming events to the history of the country. Due to the large amount of information, organization was a top priority to ensure that the site made sense to users. However, when you take out the content you realize that the template is the backbone of the website.

With patterns there is always the fear that you lose innovation and creativity. However, for the Argentine Bicentenario example the most important factor was creating a website with good usability. With such a variety of general users the website needed to be straightforward and practical so that visitors could apply and interact with the information. The goal was for anyone to navigate the website regardless of their experience level, and be able to get involved and participate in the events listed. In contrast, a boutique product that has a more specific audience would be able to use creativity more freely and still maintain their public. Depending on your target user is how we determine the limits of creativity for a webpage and what will result in good usability.

VIRTUALTRIP creates websites with good usability, evaluating the audience to determine whether a pattern or a free-form approach would be most effective. Successful webpage layouts take into account structure and the target user, and then can be adapted to fit a more specific challenge. In the Argentine Bicentenario example, we created a product that can be used as a pattern for organizations seeking to handle diverse information, can be edited by different departments, has fast to very-fast loading time with information indexed to Google bots, and is therefore user-friendly for the general public (the target audience). When you take into account your target user, you can achieve good usability that allows you to have a larger number of return-users that successfully interact with the website.

Works Cited

Alexander, Christopher (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, USA.

Crumlish, Christian and Erin Malone (2009). Designing Social Interfaces: Principles, Patterns, and Practices for Improving the User Experience. O’Reilly Media/Yahoo Press, USA.