Conventions vs Innovation

When to conform and when to innovate

Martin Whittaker
Feb 9 · 3 min read
Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

What Is a Design Convention?

Imagine a world where every bicycle worked differently, every door handle, every car. Imagine every time you needed to open a door you had to relearn how to do it. How much time would this waste? How inconvenient would it be?

It doesn’t matter what kind of design discipline, whether it be product design or interface design, conventions are rooted in human behavior. They are best practices and human expectations of how things should work. Those conventions have been worked out by trial and error over a long time and have been proven to be very effective vs other ideas.

Original design patterns compete against one another until one of them becomes dominant. The more people who are able to successfully complete goals using a particular pattern, the more likely it is that it becomes a convention. Conventions will persist for long periods until they are replaced by another competitor.

As a designer it is advantageous to use design conventions to create products which users understand and can interact with with minimum effort. The design model must aline with a users mental model. So, as a designer how can you be original while using design conventions?

Lets Not Reinvent the Wheel

Conventions are relied upon to help users navigate through their interaction with a product. During this interaction users have to understand how all the different elements work together in order for them to achieve their goals. They will look for the familiar to help them navigate through this interaction. If they are not presented with something that is familiar this will lead to confusion and frustration.

There are 3 different standards for design conventions.

Interaction Design

Interactions will align with the mental models users have before engaging with a product or element. E.g. drop-downs, toggles and forms.

Information Architecture

Information architecture covers categorization, taxonomy, layouts and the flow of tasks.

Visual Design

Visual design is the look and feel of a product. Visual design elements are not just making something look ‘pretty’, they help to improve usability and accessibility. E.g. button hovers and contrast.

How Do We Innovate using Conventions?

To innovate we must maximize the potential improvement of design problem through optimization.

There are two parts to creating an innovative experience.

Understand your Target Market

A deep understanding of your target market will help to achieve innovation. You must understand what they are used to working with, what they like and why they like it. From this you can decide on the kind of conventions that are most suitable for what they are trying to achieve and which align most accurately with their mental models.

You can make best guesses based on experience, study how similar design problems have been solved, work on the overall flow of the product and encourage discussion as instruments for deciding upon what is the best design.

Optimize Solutions

Once you have implemented a conventions you can start to optimize. Optimization is about making the current solution better. You optimize through a data-driven approach. This frames the design solution as a logic problem where the solution is found through data and tests to decide what is the best design.

Innovation can deal with granular elements or larger experiences. Innovations can be small like a button interaction or big, like restructuring a checkout flow.


It is hard to innovate within the realm of conventions. It requires the coming together of many tools and techniques such as research, testing, critical thinking and creativity. The best approach is to use the familiarity of design conventions and work around those experiences.

Martin Whittaker

Written by

Originally from Manchester, UK. Currently based in Fukuoka, Japan working as Design Lead at Qurate.

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