“Patterns” in UX – what’s your definition?

Pattern Libraries List

Yeah, that’s a screengrab of my list of resources on Pattern Libraries








“Patterns” seems to be an en vogue term right now.  Maybe it’s just because I’m assigned to a team creating a Pattern Library here at Sears Holdings…I feel like I see the term everywhere.

During interviews with our audience (employees), the definition of the term stuck out as a potential challenge.  After all, it’s in the name of the thing we are tasked to create.

Non-UX people haven’t heard the term before…at all.  Within our Design, Development, and UX teams there were similar comprehension and definition issues; even within our team during the design process. Browsing the web for inspiration and research, there seems to be a some ambiguity to the definition (at least in practice).

Also, if you want to really crunch a little – try to figure out how “atomic design” relates to the topic of patterns.

So I dug for something concrete.

Here is what I found:
Design Patterns

….is as close I could find to having a text book definition.
“Each pattern describes a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem…A pattern must explain why a particular situation causes problems, and why the proposed solution is considered a good one. …For instance, in Christopher Alexander’s work, bus stops and waiting rooms in a surgery center are both part of the context for the pattern “A PLACE TO WAIT”…”

This however, is too creation-biased or academic of a perspective for what our style guide is really trying to do; or at least it comes across that way on first impression.

It could also be that many of things are so “assumed” or “basic” that many don’t feel like they need to be documented – doors in architecture;  drop-down lists or product pages in ecommerce.

One of my big learnings during employee interviews was that we needed to keep everything on the site (content, terminology, etc) as friendly as possible to a lay-person; adding any cognitive thought should be avoided.

As such, for an employee-facing site, documenting those “assumed” things from this perspective adds an unnecessary layer of academia.


Interaction Patterns – see  Google Material (“patterns”).

In the case of a wholistic system like an OS (desktop or mobile), inconsistency in how a user goes “back”, “close”, makes something expand/collapse etc is of importance.  Failing to adhere to the interaction standards of the OS or experience creates user frustration.  Related/includes: gesture standards on touch devices.


Patterns = recurring things.

The most basic definition, and I think easily ported over to a user-centered content documentation approach.
So, we would define it as “things that a user may see or do multiple times during their experience; as a result they would expect them to look and behave in a consistent manner”.
This however feels like we are just using “patterns” as a story-telling device for “standards” – For our purpose/goals, the story we want to get across is “someone else has probably solved for this…new solutions are expensive:  code, employee labor, and for our customers (utilizing brain power is something humans are wired to avoid in part due to its energy cost)”


…So, what’s the answer? I’d love your perspective:
Tell us about your experience with “Patterns” in UI / UX Design in the comments below.
Does it mean anything to you?
What’s your definition?
While poking around to write this article, I bookmarked a few resources I didn’t find previously.  So, look out for some more on the topic later, hopefully informed by your comments below.

Update: – Post#2 “Patterns” and “Pattern Libraries” in UX – a call for terminology alignment

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