The Zeroth Law of Design: Everything is Contextual

As you all likely know, the internet is full of articles on UX design. From Medium to UX Planet, Smashing Magazine to Sitepoint, it’s a place where everyone and their dog seems to be talking about design and its role in developing websites and applications.

It’s also a place where concrete rules are treated like a sure thing. Indeed, based on what I’ve read, it seems the general consensus is that every website and platform should be clean, minimal, user friendly in tone and as simplified as possible.

However, this isn’t really the case. Instead, good design is about context. It’s about knowing your audience.

And this can be perfectly illustrated with a look at two video games; Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and WarioWare Gold.

Both games break a fundamental rule of UX design. Namely, they’re hostile to the user with their jibes at their mistakes, and mock them in ways that make even the worst examples of modal clickshaming look tame by comparison. I mean, hear what Cranky Kong has to say about your use of items for example:

Crash Guard: Gives you an extra hit point in mine cart/rocket barrel levels

Crash into too many things, and even this stuff can’t save you

Green Balloon: Rescues you from bottomless pits

Why are you falling into holes anyway?

It’s pretty snarky, and if this was a standard app, yeah you’d be right to think this sort of language would be a bad idea.

But Donkey Kong Country isn’t a standard app. It’s a comedic video game about apes trying to save their island from crocodiles, tikis and vikings. Cranky himself is a miserable old sod meant as a pastiche of the ‘grumpy old man’ trope, the kind of person who believes everything was better in the good old days and that young kids have it too easy.

So what would be bad design in one situation is perfectly decent design here. It fits the tone of the game and the characters involved.

And the same goes for WarioWare Gold too. In that game, the characters are incredibly snarky when you mess up. 5-Volt tells you that you “just couldn’t cut it”, Fronk asks “did you even try?” and Ashley… well pretty much every comment she makes in this game is worded in such a way that’ll wind someone up. It’s certainly not a title for those who get offended by fictional characters saying they can’t play worth a damn.

Yet again, it kinda words. It’s a wacky comedy series about random 5 second microgames hosted by a group of characters who are dubiously sane at best.

Point is, context matters here. What’s good design for a video game series isn’t necessarily good design for a banking app, and what’s good for a social network may not work for a healthcare site. You have to think about your audience and design based on that.

How many older people liked Snapchat? Exactly. It was designed for young people, and worked for them.

So always remember that. Remember that good design is audience specific a lot of the time, and that some rules can be broken or twisted if the audience will appreciate it.

Thanks for reading!

Originally posted on my Plume account as a test here, but reposted to Medium for extra visibility.

Written by

Gamer, writer and journalist working on Gaming Reinvented.

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