Balancing Usability with Innovative Design

We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make design decisions that aren’t best for our users, or overlook important feedback even if that feedback is valuable. Even the most highly skilled UX teams make mistakes, because it’s not always clear which design decisions are going to truly resonate with our users.

Predicting features that users will love becomes even harder if you’re trying to genuinely innovate in your designs.

Balancing usability with innovative design can be incredibly difficult — and we don’t always get it right. However, as the best UX practitioners and designers know, mistakes are awesome. Why? Because they’re invaluable opportunities to learn more about our users and create experiences that balance familiar visual cues and usability with boldness of vision and originality. But to ensure that your mistakes really are valuable learning opportunities, you need a solid understanding of why a design feature works — or doesn’t.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the most common challenges you may encounter when attempting to balance the familiar with the forward-thinking in your UX. Most importantly, we’ll be looking at why these design decisions so often alienate and confuse our users, so you can avoid making similar mistakes.

Degrees of Innovation

When it comes to balancing usability with innovation, the most important aspect to consider is the degree of innovation you’re proposing.

Take American software developer Loren Brichter, for example. Brichter was the primary developer of social networking management client Tweetie, which was acquired by Twitter in 2010. However, Brichter is better known as the inventor of the now-ubiquitous “pull-to-refresh” gesture used by millions of smartphone apps.

This gesture was truly innovative in 2010 because it gave app users an entirely new way of performing a familiar action — refreshing a page or feed — in a way that was both new and intuitive. Most importantly, Brichter’s pull-to-refresh design was perfectly suited to the medium, and was a vast improvement over the refresh function of even native mobile web browsers of that time.

The reason why Brichter’s gesture became the de facto standard for app developers isn’t just that it’s a truly great design feature; it’s because pull-to-refresh was a degree of innovation that made sense for the medium — mobile apps designed for small screens — but didn’t go so far that it alienated or confused users. This is what we mean by degrees of innovation. Brichter designed an entirely new way of interacting with dynamic content, but in a way that felt like a logical extension of how people already used the mobile web.

When designing new features, it’s vital to bear this concept of degrees of innovation in mind. As UX practitioners, we should be constantly striving to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of UX design, but we should do so in a way that feels logical, natural, and intuitive.

Designing for (Re)Usability

The next factor we should consider as UX professionals is the potential for our design innovations to be reused smartly and consistently across a product or application.

Many web and UI designers will be familiar with the concept of modular workflows and component-based design systems. These principles can and should be applied to UX design, too, but this becomes particularly relevant when implementing new design or navigational elements.

Adobe’s Playful Palette, which the company describes as “an interactive parametric color mixer for artists,” is a fantastic example of how new design features and functionality can be developed with multiple use-cases in mind. Playful Palette combines the physical action of mixing paint on an artist’s palette with the now-familiar finger gestures we use to navigate apps every day. It’s an incredibly tactile experience that further breaks down the barrier between digital and traditional art.

What makes Playful Palette such a success from a UX perspective is that it’s a refreshingly new, tactile way for digital artists to work with the familiar color wheel that feels more natural and responsive than selecting hexadecimal codes. As with our degrees of innovation example above, Playful Palette is innovative enough to be exciting from a design standpoint, familiar enough to appeal to new users and experienced digital artists alike, and can be easily repurposed and incorporated into Adobe’s extensive range of industry-leading products.

Frequency of Use

The third element we should consider when attempting to balance usability with innovative design is how frequently the design feature will be used. It’s one thing to create an entirely new way of interacting with your product. It’s another thing to devote considerable time and effort to creating an innovative new design feature that will be used once, then forgotten — or worse, used once, then abandoned.

Put another way, we have to ask ourselves how quickly the initial learning cost necessary to understand the new design feature will depreciate.

Take this design prototype for a new way to “Like” social posts, developed by freelance UI designer Virgil Pana. At face value, Pana’s design meets our earlier criteria — it’s innovative enough without feeling completely alien, and could easily be applied to various applications within the same product.

However, the potential frequency of use of this draw-to-like feature is questionable. Unless it became sufficiently popular to prompt multiple mainstream apps to incorporate it, this particular design feature may not be justifiable from a development perspective. There’s also the question of how genuinely valuable or necessary such a feature would be to users. It’s definitely a cool way to reimagine a familiar task — but do users really need it? And, perhaps more importantly, could it be justified from a business perspective?

Innovation vs. Benefits

Speaking of justifying innovative designs, the next point we should think about is how our users stand to benefit from the inclusion of bold, innovative design elements in our UX.

Simply asking whether our users will benefit from the inclusion of an innovative new design feature isn’t enough. We need to know exactly how our users stand to benefit from new design elements, and whether this aligns with user-centered design processes.

Put another way, if we’re going to propose the inclusion of an innovative new design feature, we should be able to quantify precisely how the inclusion of this new feature will benefit users in a tangible, demonstrable way. Since this is inherently difficult when dealing with new design ideas, we have few ways to prove the value of our designs aside from rigorous user testing.

However you choose to structure your usability tests, it’s crucial that you can directly connect your proposed new design feature to a specific user objective and a quantifiable business objective. Take Loren Brichter’s pull-to-refresh feature, for example. The user objective behind this feature is content discovery; a user wants to see the latest content in their feed, and the pull-to-refresh gesture lets the user do so quickly and effortlessly in a single action. This, in turn, increases user engagement — the business objective.

Even exciting new design features that could offer genuine value for users and help your product accomplish a tangible business goal might still be a tough sell, particularly if the existing design solution has worked perfectly well in the past. That’s why, as UX practitioners, we need to be able to articulate — and prove — why pushing the boundaries of conventional design can be a competitive advantage as well as a win for our users.

Know Your Users

The final element of the usability vs. innovation equation we need to think about is arguably the most important of all — our users. This is where the power of personas comes into play.

When it comes to users and introducing new design features, there are two main factors we need to examine:

  • How quickly can your users learn?
  • How easily can your users overcome learned behaviors?

The first question is highly specific to your users, and can be affected by dozens — if not hundreds — of variables. Attempting to answer this question can also inadvertently lead to making assumptions about our users, which is why a quantifiable, data-driven approach is vital.

You need to know roughly how quickly your users can realistically learn new things, then compare this to the expected length of time it takes your average user to fully understand and comfortably use your new design element. The faster your users can learn new things or get to grips with new concepts, the more potentially ambitious you can be in your designs.

The other side of this coin is how easily your users can overcome behaviors learned and developed over many years of using legacy or competing products.

Imagine if you were tasked with designing a bold new way of accessing files contextually from an operating system’s desktop — without right-clicking. In this hypothetical example, how quickly your users can learn new things isn’t the only criteria we have to consider; how easily your users can overcome learned behaviors is suddenly much more imperative. Your onboarding UX might do a fantastic job of introducing the user to your Bold New Right-Clickless contextual menu — but helping your users break a very strong learned behavior is much, much harder (and that’s before you have to justify why replacing the right-click with a new design feature is necessary).

Snapchat is a fascinating example of these principles in action. When the messaging platform announced its dramatic new redesign in November 2017, users almost universally rejected it as inferior to its predecessor. The issue wasn’t whether Snapchat users could learn to navigate the new design. Approximately 78% of Snapchat’s American users are between the ages of 18–24, a demographic known for adapting to new trends quickly. The issue with Snapchat’s new design was that it fundamentally changed how Snapchat worked — and felt — and offered little explanation of how and why the new layout would benefit users. (It’s a pretty safe bet to say the redesign’s impact didn’t exactly align with Snap’s business objectives, either.)

Reinventing the Wheel?

Pushing the boundaries of contemporary design is always a risk. That said, hopefully this post has given you some things to think about next time you’re tasked with reimagining a common design feature or giving your users new ways to achieve their goals.

Remember — there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to reinvent the wheel. Just be sure you can prove that your users’ lives will be better for it, and that your new and improved wheel aligns with what your company is trying to do as an organization.


Originally published at blog.nomnominsights.com on October 16, 2018.