The Romeo & Juliet effect, and how it applies to design.

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee

When a barrier is placed between a person and their desires, those desires become intensified. This is because the barrier prevents them from experiencing their desires in the flesh – warts and all – and instead causes them to long for their fantasy of the desired object, rather than the object itself. Fantasies are more alluring because we gloss over the bad bits, and generally the desired object takes on a mystical perfection.

This is known as the Romeo and Juliet effect. I think everyone’s familiar with the idea of it applying in romance between people, but it’s actually a useful concept to extend to design.

When creating something, it’s easy to fall in love with your ideas while they are at a nascent, intangible stage. Potential and promise are a heady mix, and it’s easy to hang around at this early stage far longer than you should do. You end up having meetings where you and your stakeholders add more and more layers onto the concept. And why not? In fantasy land, everything’s possible. Criticisms can be dodged with a swift verbal replies. Ideas are bullet proof, shape-shifting, teflon-covered wonderments.

Everything’s peachy except for one thing: it’s all bullshit.

Iterative, low fidelity prototyping is the perfect remedy, which is exactly why it’s so popular these days. You make your ideas real early on, so you can reveal the warts and deal with them as soon as possible.


The thing is, even though you may be doing your best with your lo-fi prototypes, are you revealing all the warts you should be? Are you using Lorem Ipsum when you should be giving your best shot at copywriting? Are you just designing the “happy path” through your system and forgetting about all the crucially important error conditions and error messages? In other words, even though you’re doing all the “right” things by prototyping and iterating, are you still leaving out too much detail and falling foul of the Romeo and Juliet effect?

It’s great to start off with sketches, and to build sketchy wireframes at the beginning of a project. But don’t stay in that phase. Whatever you leave out, you leave to chance.