By Ivan Nunez
January 12, 2017
Modular design is a way to build systems from smaller independent parts.
We know modularity is a smart way to design things in general because it’s common in biological systems that have been tested by evolution across billions of years. In things like beehives and leaves, simple modular building blocks provide for multi-functionality and adaptability, while allowing for the optimization and recycling of materials.
In fact, the combination of modular and nested components is so ubiquitous in nature that the discipline of biomimicry considers it one of the primary design lessons, or Life’s Principles.
Not surprisingly, modular design also is an efficient and cost-effective way to create complex digital products that are responsive and capable of evolving over time. Modular design creates numerous benefits for both the owners and users of digital products.
Modular = Iterative and Scalable
Recently, we designed and built a large digital platform for a major national nonprofit advocacy group.
The website is intended to deliver diverse content to engage multiple subscriber and nonsubscriber audiences in activities that can help maintain brain health.
Modular design is ideal for projects of this size and complexity because it allows for quick implementation and iterative growth. We knew the content and modes of engaging visitors would change over time, so we designed a modular system that could flexibly adapt to changing user and business needs.
Initially, we built a simple structure that allowed us to test rapidly and make adjustments easily. Then we were able to quickly iterate a minimum viable product for the market, while also accommodating growth in terms of new users, content and web technology.
Modular Design Creates Cost Savings
Digital products like the brain health platform are big undertakings that need to provide value for years to come, even as the Internet and users rapidly change.
By its very nature, modular design allows for adaptation to these changes. When you develop with modular design, you don’t have to scrap an entire site and start over to adequately respond to changing user or business needs, like the newest social media craze or a Google algorithm update. Instead, you simply update the relevant modules.
Similarly, you don’t have to anticipate these changes and design multiple scenarios for potential future states of the site. Instead, you simply add or update modules as needed.
In biomimicry, this is called fitting form to function, and it’s one of Life’s Principles for being resource efficient. Ultimately, this saves a lot of money and development time and extends the life of a digital product.
Content Developers Thrive on Modularity
Modular design isn’t just for the benefit of developers, though. It’s also ideal for site authors and editors, who are responsible for creating popular content and web pages.
Modular design allows for the creation of components that are easily manipulated to conform to different content types and visitor needs. In the case of the brain health site, the content is a mix of articles, recipes, brain games, social media activities, personal checklists and more.
With modular components, content authors can focus on developing discrete pieces of content, while editors concern themselves with the totality of pages, easily mixing and matching relevant pieces of videos, articles, photos or charts. Cultivating cooperative relationships is another of biomimicry’s Life’s Principles for being locally attuned and responsive. In this instance, modularity fosters interdependence of both content and users.
This modular approach to creating pages also allows for personalization of content for audiences. Each site visitor can have a unique content experience through customization of interchangeable content components. This is known to improve the popularity and stickiness digital products.
Modular components also adapt to mobile screens with relative ease, which is important for maintaining the continuity of the user experience across devices.
Users Are Comfortable with Modular Design, Too
Good modular design relies on user-interface patterns to create familiarity—or surprise.
We employ common web-design elements and actions, as well as repetition, so users intuitively know how to interact with digital products. Understanding how these user expectations are created, also allows a designer to purposefully tweak them in order to grab the user’s attention.
We carefully consider how (and if) to employ things users typically take for granted, like navigation, anchors, carousels, cards and progressive disclosures. In doing so, we balance the benefit of optimized development time with the need for innovation and delight.
This is another instance where a Life’s Principle (replicate strategies that work) is a good touchpoint for successful design.
Two Success Factors for Modular Designs
As with any design project, the first key to good modular design is to understand who the users will be, and what their needs are.
Whether it’s consumers, content authors, business owners, or all three, designers must first get to know the users—”gain empathy” for them. For the brain health platform, we interviewed the organization’s members and prospects and found they wanted information on a holistic approach to brain health, not just brain games. We use this type of foundational research and insight to develop user personas, which then guide our design requirements.
The second success factor—experience—largely determines how effectively and efficiently the design requirements are met in a modular design project. Ideally, designers will have experience in modular design and in the industry (or a close parallel).
At Azul Seven, for instance, we’ve designed dozens of digital products for health and wellness clients. We know how to best conduct research in this field and how to build on the proven patterns of dashboards and other complex frameworks used in digital health.
Experience ultimately allows designers to arrive at a viable modular structure through a shortened, but highly informed discovery process, and then begin tuning it for iterative growth and successful user adoption.
And let’s not forget about biomimicry. It’s the continual process of asking: How would nature design a digital product? It sounds a little silly, but wouldn’t you want a digital product that can evolve to survive, be resource efficient, adapt to changing conditions, integrate development with growth, and be locally attuned and responsive? Those are five of the six fundamental Life’s Principles.
To learn more about modular design and biomimicry, contact us.