I didn't see Espen Brunborg talk at this year's Reasons to conference, but my colleague Matt did - he came back to the studio and sent me a link to this screen in Brunborg’s presentation (below), showing two conflicting sets of values that are attributed to ‘good’ design and it immediately made me think of the accusations that are becoming louder in our industry: that User Experience (UX) methodology is homogenising design and the use of conventions and patterns is knocking out innovation and creativity. The same accusation is leveled at the proliferation of template and bootstrap driven design: We are making the same website over and over again.
Designers need to be playful and have the room to explore without constraints that could suffocate creativity. UX methodology has been accused of stifling creativity in the past. This 2014 post on FastCo.com: ‘User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea’ claims Apple designers (off the record of course) “... don't waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love." It goes without saying that this designer probably doesn't work in Apple’s iTunes division (which I imagine is in an Apple version of Hell where underperforming designers go for punishment, their woodsman beards shaved, dressed all normcore with only tap water in jam jars and stale non-artisanal bread for nourishment).
Of course design should not be ‘user led’ in the way this un-named Apple designer is describing. “...people don’t know what they want until we show them” is the Apple ethos and this serves them well. Apple ditching the headphone jack is one of those difficult design decisions that rails against what people think they want, but paves the way for the products and experiences of the future. As a UX practitioner and designer I don’t need a list of what a user thinks we should do for them, rather I need to understand a user's needs. I don’t need the ‘how’ only the ‘why’.
In the words of usability guru Jakob Nielson:
“When should you collect preference data from users? Only after they have used a design and have a real feeling for how well it supports them.”
Testing on users helps validate the creative approaches designers produce. To say Apple do not user test is plain wrong. With the launch of the iOS 7 Beta in 2013 (and with Jonathan Ive in full creative control) Apple ditched the skeuomorphism of the past and embraced flat design. Due to the negative noise made by Apple fanboys, Apple quickly released an update to the OS adding more font weights (and ultimately getting shot of the ultra light versions of Helvetica Neue) and much more affordance to the interface. With the launch, and update, of iOS 7 Apple had user tested their OS ‘in the wild’ and made significant changes based the feedback they received after the first iteration had been released to the public. This is user testing en masse.
The conclusion Brunborg made to his talk (admittedly given to me second hand) was that both approaches he describes in his slide above are ‘good’ and a sensible mix of the two is the way forward. I wholeheartedly agree. As a designer who cut his teeth at advertising agencies I know how ignoring conventions and just going for big impact can make for an unusable solution. I have also seen the other side of the coin (and this is evident just on the volume of Medium posts about this subject) how UX methodology, and UX practitioners championing convention, can lead to a homogenized look to many a user interface, and a fear of anything ‘different’.
Innovation shy UX practitioners grasping onto conventions in their cold clammy hands are not the only culprits in making for a generic web. The proliferation of readily available bootstrap themes and the echo chambers of designer community sites such as Dribbble all add to the mix, creating a ‘look and feel’ that has propagated the web, become the norm, and has cultivated a culture of safety and duplication rather than innovation and risk taking.
How can new solutions arise if we don't aim to innovate? In the words of that famous lifestyle salesman Steve Jobs, we need to do things differently.