The Design Parallax

July 27, 2010 — Leave a comment

Parallax. It may be an unfamiliar term to many. It’s defined as the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer. For example, a driver may look at a speedometer and it reads 65, but when the passenger looks on it appears to read a different speed due to the difference in angle they are viewing the speedometer from. There’s nothing different with the speedometer itself, but just the angle it is viewed from makes it appear different.

We need to view our designs from the parallax as well. Well, to clarify, we need to view them both head on and from the parallax as well. Doing this doesn’t change the content but gives us a different viewing angle of that content from which we base our designs. This can mean many different things. We can adapt this to mean designing a web app to fit a mobile experience or we can adapt it to mean moving a local machine experience to a network-based experience. Or maybe it’s just a simple (or not so simple) redesign. It’s really just about taking the same basic problem and adapting that problem for some difference in an environmental variable, but the purpose is to use these different angles to feed various POVs into our designs to improve the user experience.

Multiple Designs

One way to work in the design parallax is to put together multiple designs for something. Now, this isn’t always an option due to time constraints, but it is part of an ideal design process so work it in if you can. This forces a couple things. First, is that it requires you to think of multiple solutions to solve a single problem. This increases your critical thinking skills by making you think outside of one straight path towards solving a problem. It makes you come from various angles. Another benefit is that often your final design is some amalgam of the proposed solutions. Typically, the final design is based off one of the designs and then pulls from the best parts of the other designs. It’s more time intensive, but it ultimately leads to a better design and product.

Multiple Platforms

Another way to look at a design problem from the parallax is to design for multiple platforms. Many products of today have desktop, web, and mobile interfaces. Thinking of designs for all three may bring out new issues you can solve or ideas for improvement even if your product doesn’t require an interface for all of these. It makes you think about a problem not only using different pattern libraries but entirely different interaction mechanisms (mouse/keyboard vs. touch screen). Using a specific interaction mechanism may spark an idea to use for an entirely different interaction.

Evernote 3 apps

Source: Evernote Website

Another way to improve a product is to use this view from different platforms to think about the interactions between them. I use Evernote quite often for both work and personal uses. One thing that makes it so appealing to me is the synchronization between its three forms. I can take a picture of some research with my cell phone, that will then synch with both my desktop app and the web app to where I can view it from anywhere. The idea that utilizing one of the app’s forms to improve the other forms is a great way of using what I’m referring to as the parallax to improve design.

Competitive Analyses

Many companies perform competitive analyses, but many do it to see what they are up against or what their product may be missing. However, competitors are not always enemies and can be used to improve designs. Sometimes, I look at other products to see what the familiar interaction is to users that use a particular interaction. Other times, I’ll look at products just to see what they did and what I don’t like about it. I do this because no one designer is ever going to have all the answers. Peer reviews are important because other designers may catch flaws in your design or bring their own ideas that improve the design. Competitive analyses are similar in that you can catch flaws in designs or items to improveme that no one else has caught and add that to your product to give it the advantage. Looking at competitors’ products is yet another method of designing from the design parallax.

New Trends and Technology

Keeping up with new trends and technology is a great way to work from the design parallax. Trends typically happen because it’s something new that people like. Now, you should be warned that occasionally trends are bad (autotune, Facebook applications, etc.) and you should use discernment. Regardless, trends are things that people are typically aware of you should be too when designing. New technology is the more interesting one though because this can allow for new designs altogether. Sometimes I will design something and have a developer review it to tell me that it’s just not technologically possible, whether it’s actually impossible or just in the time we have set aside. New technology may make that or a completely new design possible and designers should stay abreast of this information as it can dramatically affect your designs.


The Design Parallax is something every designer should work in. It makes us take new views on designs and, hopefully, improves our designs. I’ve discussed several ways to use the parallax to your advantage. You should probably use several of these simultaneously if given the time.

What other ways can we work in the Design Parallax?

Do you even agree with this approach?

Justin Smith

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