It’s All About Connections

Aug 1, 2023 | Discussion, Quotes

“Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects … the quality of the connections is the key to quality.”

Charles Eames

Everything connects

I found this quote first in a beautiful book about Ray and Charles Eames, sitting unloved on a coffee table in the shared working space at a previous employer. A fairly bare-bones arrangement in a stylish downtown tower, the office was one concrete-walled room of medium size, with one of those walls entirely given over to floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the city from the 23rd floor. In one corner, a small grey couch and a faux mid-mod coffee table with a book about Eames on it. Clearly a final decorative touch by whoever designed the space, I doubt anyone else there had opened it. And this quote jumped out at me as I flipped through the pages of the Eames’ striking work.

Now I should say right away that I do not claim to be any kind of an expert on Charles or Ray Eames, nor is this really an article about them or their work. Not really. But I have been inspired by their work, and their words, enough for them to find a place to live in my mind. And this quote comes back to me often in relation to my own design work.

Charles Eames, the iconic architect and furniture designer, is best remembered perhaps for his beautiful chairs. He created several iconic designs that went on to shape (literally) a generation of industrial design and continue to influence designers today. Perhaps more than any other creator, Eames represents to me what it means to BE a designer.  His work was innovative, iterative, meticulously researched, and rigorously tested and optimized. His work life and home life blended together in a way that many of us would recognize today, which was revolutionary at the time. Eames didn’t just design things, he designed an entire way of looking at the world.

Digital connections

But what does Eames have to do with digital design in the 21st century? Well, everything really. His approach to design is very much embedded in the way we work in the digital era – research, iteration, innovation, and marketing – as well as the aforementioned approach to life and creativity. And the idea of connections, which was so central to his thinking and to this post, is one of the most central concepts of the modern world and it’s applications to the digital world are self-evident. You connected to the internet to read this, after all.

But in a more literal sense, the idea that “the quality of the connections is the key to quality” is a very interesting idea. For a furniture designer, it has very literal applications – it isn’t the wood and metal that are most prone to break or squeak or become loose over time – these are tried and tested materials with known properties – it is the bolts and joints and welds and adhesives that keep it all together that will tell the tale. This is where the real innovation happens, and where entropy will strike first. No matter how beautiful the chair, if it creaks when you sit in it, or worse if the bolts drop out and the whole thing falls into a heap of planks and steel rods on the floor, your perception of the quality of the piece would be somewhat reduced, to say the least. In this sense, the fact that it is a chair and not a pile of planks and steel rods is due entirely to the connections that hold it all together in the form and function of a chair.

In terms of digital design, it is not the individual experiences that are most prone to lose the customer’s trust or fail for technical reasons (although this can certainly happen), it is the transitions from one experience to the next, from one interaction with a given digital brand to the next, that can fail in a literal or figurative sense. Individual experiences (within an e-commerce site or a digital banking app, for example) have hopefully been thoughtfully designed and tested to create an experience that will be effective and engaging. But it is the way these interfaces connect together, the continuity of language and interactions, that creates a sense of quality for the customer. Great connections between experiences and logical flows through user tasks give the impression that everything is coordinated and working well.

On the other hand, if the connections between experiences are confusing or erratic, the overall impression of quality is greatly reduced. If you go from a beautiful shopping experience to a checkout page that does not match the previous design and the language shifts suddenly to a more generic and robotic tone, the perception of quality for the entire experience (not to mention the level of trust) decreases rapidly.

Connecting the dots

This is where common product design and user experience practices really come into their own. Product design is as much about the connections as the individual interfaces, maybe more. Personas and customer journeys, application flows, sitemaps, empathy maps, design principles: all of these seek to understand, define and improve the connections in your customer’s journey with your experience or product.

To improve your connections, focus on developing a simple, logical flow of interfaces or experiences. Pay special attention not only to visual design but to copy voice and tone, overall brand, style, context and persuasion to move users through your flow in as natural and invisible a way as possible. Envision the entire customer journey, focusing extra attention on your part of the journey – the application flows. Create effective connections between experiences by introducing ideas and concepts before the “jump” to a new experience, and reinforce those concepts on “landing” in the new space.

Then, when you have crafted your journey, test it with customers. Launch it and keep a close eye on your funnel metrics and other KPIs to get an idea of how well your connections are working. Where are you losing customers? How can you optimize your flow to minimize customers falling out? Review the entire live process from the perspective of a customer and find out where you can strengthen connections and smooth out any unintended friction that may appear in the flow. And repeat.