UX Spandrels

I know next to nothing about cars. I don’t drive and I don’t have any interest in them. I know some of them are red, some of them are blue, and some of them have more doors than others. My brother is very much the opposite. After eighteen months of searching, he finally dropped a mortgage deposit on a shiny new four-wheeled friend. He is immensely proud of it.

So imagine his dismay when I failed to share his excitement for its sveltness, its shininess, or its car-iness (I really don’t have a clue). Instead, what really got me was the cigarette lighter holder. I mean just look at it.

A car cigarette lighter being used as a power supply


The manufacturer has completely given up on the fact that it’s supposed to help light cigarettes, and instead has just whacked a voltage label on it. They know that you’re not planning on using that to light cigarettes any time soon. This is what you might call a spandrel.

If you imagine an archway in a church or cathedral, a spandrel is the curved area between the arch and it’s enclosure. Decoration of these areas is pretty common, but they exist as a by-product of structural decisions, not for their aesthetic potential. In evolutionary biology, the term spandrel is used specifically to refer to these by-product characteristics. These are things that have emerged on the back of something else, but offer no evolutionary advantage to evolve by themselves. To take a controversial example, Noam Chomsky has claimed that human language is a spandrel, appearing as a by-product of increased brain size and complexity.

Example of spandrels on the National Building Museum, located in Washington D.C.  Credit: NCinDC and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License


Returning to the cigarette lighter holder, its use as a power outlet is a spandrel in the sense that it was actually designed to light cigarettes. The power aspect was required to heat the removable lighter, rather than supply electricity. As a power outlet, it’s large and difficult to use - but a genuine user need saw it become repurposed.

Back in UXland, you can see spandrels all around us. Improvements in camera fidelity have allowed for the emergence of scanner apps. Email, designed to be a method of communication, can be a personal note-taker (something embraced by Google’s Inbox). Twitter as a mechanism for customer support, is a spandrel, because it’s a by-product of its simplicity and pervasiveness. I can’t imagine that Jack Dorsey ever intended to build the most passive-aggressive customer support line known to man. And I bet a lot of us have used Wordpress for things other than blogs, a by-product of its incredible competence and reliability.

Although we focus on designing for user needs, spandrels really emerge where needs are ill-defined. Or at least defined ambiguously.

Several years ago, I worked on Halo – a high-end videoconferencing system. Our aim was to facilitate boardroom style conversations between executives. Yet all we really did was connect some cameras to some screens and made sure everything else stayed out the way. Everything we created was designed to guide but not coerce - what users did with it was really down to them. Consequently, we found all kinds of things happening as a by-product of the improved technology - physical storyboarding at film studios, hardware reviews with industrial designers, even wedding rehearsals. It was never designed for anything more complex than simple discussion, yet the improvements in quality and minimal prescriptiveness helped it find new applications.

If you have any good examples of spandrels in design or UX, comment below or tweet @we_are_nomensa with them, using the hashtag #spandrel.

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