It is really common to hear designers making choices or changes so their designs are “consistent”. But sometimes consistency has no benefit, or could even make your design worse. So why are you treating inconsistency like a problem?
“Consistency is always a good thing!” you might say. Not so fast.
It’s an example of a “personal rule”. It’s not a UX rule, and it’s not a best practice. It’s just something the designer believes in religiously, for no reason.
To the designer, personal rules seem obvious and feel important. But they can’t explain why. It is because it is.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of cases where personal rules will lead you down the wrong path, and I can’t think of a better example that the great and powerful religion of “consistency”.
So what is this magical “consistency”?
When I say consistency, I am talking about designers who think that your iOS app and your Android app have to be identical.
Or that your typography must be exactly the same in one browser as it is in another browser.
Or that you are not “allowed” to design features that aren’t in the Apple or Google guidelines.
Or that your desktop website needs a hamburger menu because your mobile website has a hamburger menu.
Or that your mobile app/site should do all the same things as your desktop app/site.
Or that every user should see the exact same interface, content, or layout as every other user.
There are many times when all of those opinions are wrong.
If your personal rules disagree with that statement, you will disagree with me by instinct, even though you won’t able to tell me why consistency is better.
Ask yourself: “consistent with what?”
One big cause of this flawed thinking is that you are only considering your own apps or your own designs. You want to be consistent with you.
That is a subtle form of designer ego. You’re trying not to “kill your darlings”, or you’re trying to “protect” your idea, or you just don’t want to manage two versions of a design because it wasn’t part of your vision.
Remember: as the designer, you know more and see more of your designs than a user ever will. You are intimately familiar with every detail. You see all the devices, all the platforms, and all the personas.
But a single user typically only uses your design on one device at a time, they only represent one or two personas, and they probably aren’t going to try completing a task across several different situations at the same time.
It is more important to be consistent with what users know about the world, and feel within themselves, than consistent with your other designs. So it is more useful to have a typical Android solution on Android and a typical iOS solution for iOS. If someone switches platforms, they will have to learn some new patterns for all their apps. When they do, your Android-on-iOS solution will seem weird and inconsistent.
Ask yourself: “consistent for what purpose?”
Consistency can have some benefits. I am not saying it is always bad either.
Using the same logo everywhere makes your brand easily recognizable.
Using the same “buy button” design allows users to easily recognize the purchase flow.
Using the same menu location on every page of your website creates quick habits and makes your site easy to learn.
Consistency can create expectations that are useful.
But when the user visits your mobile site the next day, they don’t expect the same layout as your desktop site the day before. So consistency is not useful.
In fact, “mobile-first” design is based on the idea of being inconsistent in a useful way. Design differently for different devices with different needs and different use cases.
Inconsistency can be a good thing!
When expectations should be different, use inconsistency to create new expectations!
Ask yourself: are you creating “sameness” or “consistency”?
Ultimately, the big confusion happens because designers confuse the idea of consistency and sameness.
Something is not consistent because it is identical. Consistency should mean allowing the user to complete their goals in the best way. And the “best way” might be different in different situations.
Beginners need easy onboarding. Power users need speed and efficiency. That’s consistency with user skills.
Mobile users need bigger text and simpler functionality. Desktop users can handle more content and more detailed control. That’s consistent with task and device strengths.
For standard functions, following the Apple/Google guidelines makes a lot of sense. But if a custom function would solve your problem in a better way, do it! That’s consistency with the purpose of common design patterns.
Your favorite font might not render very well in all browsers, so many going with something else on a Windows machine is actually nicer. That’s consistency with maximizing browser capabilities.
If users need to see different options or different content to make their experience better, then personalize it! That’s consistency with personality or preferences.
If mobile users just want to check the status of something, and desktop users want to create complicated stuff from scratch, then design those tools differently! Don’t force mobile users to do something complicated, and don’t limit desktop users just so the designs are the same.
Consistency over time might mean that your design evolves with a user, or allows the user to change the layout to suit their needs.
And depending on your perspective, all of those versions of “consistency” might feel “inconsistent” with your personal rules.
Personal rules are not “the UX perspective”. They are your personal preference.
Consistency can have benefits, like faster learning, brand recognition, simpler development and maintenance, etc.
But inconsistency can have all the same benefits.
If you can’t answer why consistency will improve the user goals or business goals, then maybe it won’t.
Inconsistency is not a problem, so stop trying to solve it.