Transience can be a handy principle when applied tastefully in user experience design, as it follows a philosophical concept and natural pattern people already inherently understand – nothing lasts forever.


Transient design in religious tradition

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sand mandalas are sacred, colourful mosaics painstakingly handcrafted by a single or group of monks. The artworks are created by organising coloured grains of sand into symbolic patterns and can take anywhere from days or weeks to complete. Once a piece is created, members of a monastery gather together to ceremonially dismantle the delicate artwork. Tibetan Buddhists act out this ritual practice of construction and destruction to symbolise the transient nature of life and the world.


Transient design in the digital world

In the digital world, Google Doodles follow a similar process of construction and destruction as the sand mandala. An artist or engineer creates a centerpiece for the Google homepage that exists for one day, only to be removed or replaced and then archived into the depths of the internet. The Google Doodle is designed as a temporary, shared experience to give search users an unexpected spark of joy as they go about their own business.

However unlike Google Doodles or sand mandalas, some transient designs are intentionally inconspicuous. Although these types of experiences play an important role within the design ecosystem, they are gone before anyone realises they existed. They are hidden in plain sight yet are common in systems that require a user to input information that needs validating or shows progression. These sneaky patterns exist in every type of well-designed system from shopping carts to mobile apps to video games.


Informing the user with transient experiences

Transient experiences can help maintain user confidence, for example a loading animation provides a useful distraction while the system loads something fresh. If timed correctly, loading state interstitials can assist users to make their next selection. When a loading state suddenly shifts to a loaded or ready state, it functions like a green light in traffic, telling users they can proceed safely.

The loading state on a web browser is an experience all users encounter. A website’s favicon in the browser tab title changes to a spinning ring during a loading state on Chrome, but it is intentionally designed to be noticed peripherally. But without the spinning ring indicator, a user would believe something went wrong. The purpose of any loading state is to be transient as persistent or ongoing loading states are frustrating and confusing for users.

Design leaders often cite Miller’s Law, the scientific theory by cognitive psychologist George Miller that suggests the average person can only memorise seven things at once, give or take two (7±2). Transient and invisible experiences can be applied in response to Miller’s Law, as they help reduce cognitive effort on users naturally. When an experience has come and gone, it is one less thing for a user to remember.


Final thoughts

From my experience, transient design elements can be seen as unnecessary luxuries in a digital product, as it’s not always clear to managers what role they play. It’s also difficult to measure how they specifically help with engagement or conversions. But it’s a designer’s responsibility to persuade a product team to appreciate transient experiences, as they assist with the usability of any design system.

It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.
– Miles Davis quote on using space and time in jazz music