For the creative person working in marketing and design, ‘be different’ is important. From day one, creatives are trained and usually rewarded for thinking outside the box, pushing limits and breaking new ground. As a result, when a creative person perceives a pattern in an industry, category, approach, etc. their natural reaction is to zag when others zig. In advertising this is often the difference between breaking through work and being lost in the noise.
The agenda of the user-experience designer is different. Someone tasked with managing usability needs to make sure the person engaging with their interface can quickly and easily navigate the system, accomplish their tasks and find their way to the next logical place. This has much to do with leveraging existing paradigms and conventions as appropriate. So where the creative person sees ‘different’ as an advantage. The UX designer sees it as a potential barrier to usability.
Much of the interface design work that goes into websites and apps falls on the shoulders of people who are classified as ‘creatives’. While a digitally native designer might snap to the needs of usability quicker, there is still an overwhelming urge among most creative people to substitute in the ‘new and different’ whenever possible. That could be in anything from the placement of navigation to the use of icons instead of words.
I recently stumbled upon a useful analogy for helping creative people understand where and how creativity and usability should meet and merge. I thought I would share it with you as you might find it helpful too.
My analogy is the automobile. There is all sorts of creativity in automobile design. From aesthetics, to the placement of cup holders, to the shape and position of taillights. However, every car manufactured has some common elements. A steering wheel on the left side is one (for cars in the U.S.). the gas pedal on the right and brake on the left, is another. The shape of those pedals (vertical vs. horizontal orientation) is yet another.
It’s fair to assume that car designers have entertained other replacements for the steering wheel. Joysticks, video-game like controllers, etc. And certainly, some modifications have been made (like adding buttons to the steering wheel for controlling the sound and climate systems). But by and large the steering wheel looks the same now as it did 20 years ago. That’s because the steering wheel is directly related to the utility of the car. If you can’t steer you can’t drive. And if every time you get into a new car, you need to learn to steer again there’d be many, many more accidents on the road.
In fact, when you think about it, if a car’s usability is compromised it can be immediately frustrating. Most of us have rented a car where the lights and windshield wipers are on different sides. Imagine you’re driving. In comes a flash rain shower. You quickly reach for the wipers and accidentally turn on your high beams. Think about what that does as you’re trying to keep your car in its lane and dealing with rapidly diminishing visibility. In a addition to frustrating, it’s also dangerous. Fortunately, digital design usability issues aren’t usually lethal (though they may lead to products being killed).
With web and app designs, it can be tempting to move the navigation or treat buttons in creative ways. Though one should exercise extreme caution in doing so as it can be the equivalent of swapping the wipers for the headlights on the steering column of a car.
Now, you could dig in here and call up the iPod as an example. The now iconic spinner wheel was a huge shift in interface. It was very different, very new and ultimately very successful. That said, I have two thoughts on the spinner. One, Apple probably spent a small fortune testing usability before it released the product. I don’t know that for sure, but I’m guessing they did. Second, the spinner found its home in a whole new device without a prior paradigm to reference. MP3 players were far different from the mechanical needs of portable CD players. If you’re creating a new product category, the opportunity might arise for a complete break from convention. But if you’re designing for a device with a history – like computers and I would argue even by similarity, tablets (which still rely heavily on the visual concept of buttons) – you’ll likely get better usability by keeping critical aspects of the interface familiar.
By the way, the car analogy is also useful for clients. An agency’s clients often seek to be new and different just like their creative teams. Marketers know that sameness in advertising rarely lead to gains in marketshare. However, websites and apps are not really advertisements. Sure it helps a brand, but by the time someone is on your website or using your app, the goal has changed. No longer are you looking to ‘break through’ or ‘stand out’ in the advertising sense. The job instead is to deliver on a promise and experience. Good experiences can have a degree of novelty, true, but they also should be efficient and easy. They should feel satisfying and never be confusing. Navigating the experience should be quickly familiar even if the screens loaded are full of new information, ideas, games, videos, tools or whatever. This is precisely why designing a website or app is like designing a car. You’re getting into it to go somewhere and do something. Anything that makes that harder in turn makes the vehicle less useful, no matter how sexy it is on the surface.