Don’t mistake common UI patterns for best practices

A hard look at how the browse experience translates in the digital space

A colleague of mine recently published an article on a new model that he coins the human environment model—an approach to product design that asks us to “blur the line between the digital and material environment,” and in doing so, generate an emotional appeal from our users.

I thought I’d take a stab at exploring this concept as it relates to one experience in particular: browse. Designers have notoriously poured their blood, sweat and tears into browse experiences, and to what end? These experiences often overstimulate and under deliver.

Take Amazon Instant Video’s browse experience, for example:

Appeal to the senses, yes, but never at the expense of legibility.

Amazon’s densely packed browse experience is visually stimulating—and yet, this experience feels overwhelming, cluttered and illegible. We can’t begin to browse because frankly…we’re not sure where to begin. Which begs the question: why do we continue to put ourselves through the oftentimes hellish experience of trying to find content this way?

Why do we browse?

Before we do the deep dive on browsing in the digital space, maybe we should ask why we browse in the first place. After all, in the fast-paced, instantly gratifying world that we live in, who has time to spend scanning page after page of content looking for the je ne sais quoi special thing that has been missing from their lives?

And yet…we do it all the time.

Whether it’s a sofa that we found for a steal on Craigslist or a movie that we stumbled upon on Netflix, there’s a rush of excitement that comes with finding exactly what we‘re looking for—but didn’t know we needed. It’s a variation of known-item searching; we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, and yet, we know it when we see it.

It’s the thrill of the hunt.

Where do browsing experiences break down?

Ok, so now that we have a better understanding of why users are still finding time to browse, let’s take a closer look at where browsing experiences are falling flat. Browse starts to break down when:

  • Structures are overly-prescriptive. A-to-B-to-C category structures with rigid, hierarchical schemes force users down specific pathways that don’t lend themselves to exploration and instances of discovery, or don’t resonate with the way a user thinks about organizing content.
Unless this is supposed to be funny (in which case, ha…ha…) no Hulu, just no.
  • Structure is absent. Don’t think that by going to the other end of the spectrum, you’ll solve the mystery of bad browsing experiences. Removing structure from the equation is a sure-fire way of causing disorientation and distress.
Xbox has been iterating on their masonry grid layout for what feels like forever.
  • Browsing isn’t the dominant search pattern. This sounds like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised by how many interfaces feature complex browsing structures when their users are predominantly performing known-item searches.
Browsing for thrifty finds on Craigslist? Sure! Drilling three categories deep for cream cheese? Woof.
  • The experience…or lack thereof. The goal of a well-designed browse experience should be to delight, not just deliverthe user to the point of conversion. Unfortunately, many browse patterns in the wild aren’t concerned with the user’s journey; they’re merely an extension of search. This is where the human environment model comes into play, where delivering sensory-level stimulation yields the greatest satisfaction, and basically…where we separate the men from the boys.

The secret sauce

So what’s the secret to creating a good browse experience? The truth is, there’s no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to browsing. That’s because browsing is an incredibly individualized experience. No two people have the exact same relationship with any piece of content, and therefore they don’t necessarily think about organizing content in the same way. With this in mind, here are a few tips to consider when tackling your next product launch or redesign:

Be explicit sparingly.

I’m not talking about this:

I’m talking about this:

GrubHub uses explicit navigational elements sparingly, and it works.

GrubHub uses explicit filters at the top of their browse experience that allow the user to immediately specify what type of food they’re craving. They use a simple structure to point their hungry user base down the right path. No multi-tier hierarchies. No crazy cross-listing. Just browse by food type, filter down from there and voila! Dinner is served.

Think outside the box…err device.

Don’t limit your designs to two dimensions. Think about how your users’ environment plays a role in their experience, and how aspects of that environment can be leveraged to create more meaningful interactions. And if all else fails, appeal to the senses.

Hankr appeals to the senses with their visual restaurant app.

Evoke the spirit of the hunt.

A browse experience, when implemented correctly, should evoke the spirit of the hunt. Your product should give off a strong enough information scent that users shouldn’t need to rely on explicit navigation to know where to go. As the user navigates through the experience, contextual pathways should open up and direct the user down alternate, but possibly more meaningful routes until the unknown—but sensed—piece of information has been discovered.


Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts about browsing; now it’s time to share your thoughts. When do you prefer to browse vs. search? Are there certain browsing experiences that work in the real world, but fall flat in a digital space? Add your comments below or reach out on LinkedIn.


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