“Patterns” and “Pattern Libraries” in UX – a call for terminology alignment

Alternate title: “…ruminations on where we are today”

In my previous article, I mentioned a terminology struggle around the use of the word “Pattern” for our enterprise style guide – Sears Pattern Library.com.

Why do I care?

Language matters. In an organization like ours, adoption / buy-in is critical. “Pattern” may have meaning to someone that isn’t related to web – dress patterns, geometrical patterns, etc.

Our decision – while we are still using the word in the name of the site, we are shying away from using the term in describing our approach.

The core concept is modularity – a design system, intended to improve design and development efficiency by reuse and optimization of UI components, producing a consistent interface for the customer..all rolling up into bottom line impact.  “Modular design” is the terminology we are including on our homepage (we’ll see how that fares with our audience).

Can our industry align on a use and definition of the word “pattern”?

Perhaps we are at a moment where language is just changing (like when “literally” is accepted to mean “figuratively”).

At its core there are a few struggles around the word:

  1. perspective – user vs designer/creator.
  2. language – “design” is both a noun and a verb. “Design patterns” refers to the verb. Another way to say it – patterns in design. solution patterns.
  3. Modularity, style guides, design patterns – these are all closely related concepts in our industry


Academic works in our industry:

  • Design patterns – an early book which inherits Alexander’s perspective applied to software design and architecture
  • Designing interfaces – subtitled: “Patterns for Effective Interface Design”
  • …both have a level of abstraction and academia.

What’s going on today:

  • Brad Frost’s work with atomic design is very influential; he uses the word pattern often, and has created a tool called Pattern Lab
  • There are myriad sites creating what are interchangeably being called style guides or pattern libraries.
  • Other notables – note: both use the word “patterns” within their content.

For a site like ours documenting a design system or language – what is clear to me is that the word “patterns” must have modifier:

  • UI patterns – meaning patterns in our product – the concept is modularity / standards.
  • (UI / interaction) design patterns – used by IXDA and others
  • interaction patterns – a concept split squarely between user and designer perspective.
  • navigation patterns – a subset of interaction patterns

Some sites that call themselves a “pattern library” would better be called a “UI pattern library”, because that’s all it is, a UI library with a modular approach – the word “pattern” is standing in for the word “module”…or is being used to simply mean “recurring things” (see previous post).

Our approach: A designer knows tabs are an option in their toolkit – we are saying “here is how ours looks and behaves”…supplemented with some guidelines (and education) on what tabs are good (and poor) at.

Within our UX team, “Patterns” has fast become common short-hand – for standards, for interaction patterns, for the name of my team. The adoption of the term is great because it indicates adoption of the concept. Perhaps “patterns” is en vogue because “standards” sounds like rules, and people don’t like rules.   This article from the team at Autodesk indicates we aren’t alone.

Should we just call our pattern library a “style guide”? design system/language?  Both remove a layer, and eliminate confusion due to other associations with the word “pattern” – which may make adoption easier outside of our UX team. Anyone have any experience?

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2 Responses to ““Patterns” and “Pattern Libraries” in UX – a call for terminology alignment”

  1. Bethany Lankin
    October 16, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Great article! I found this via a Google search because I’m tackling the same issues at my company now.

    • Chad Cline →
      November 2, 2015 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks Bethany! Glad I could help a little.
      Where have you landed on the terminology problem in your organization?