My thoughts on work and life

Innovation and Usability

Right, I’m going to try and be provocative, I may not believe any or all of the following, but thought I’d throw it out there….

The age old debate of Usability Vs Innovation still continues with many still arguing that Usability rules over creative design approaches. Personally, I think the two are not mutually exclusive and are often complimentary (particularly as we move away from the page-centric view of the web to more RIA’s). However, for a lot of Interaction Design professionals it can be frustrating that they do not often get a chance to be really innovative.

Novel Design Approaches

The problem is usable interfaces often tend to be rather conservative (some would say dull). For, you see, usable interfaces tend to be consistent with the look and feel of similar applications, and have been designed for ease of use by novice users. The problem with this is that innovative or different designs tend to depart from the existing interaction paradigm, and may therefore take a little more time to learn. In the medium term, these alternate approaches may bring far greater benefits than the traditional design. However, they rarely get that far, as users are just not prepared to learn a new dynamic, they want something they are familiar with already. Even if we make an assumption that the users are willing to adapt, how prepared are management to task a risk on something different? Does making something usable and understandable first and foremost, trounce any inspiration that may yield ‘innovative’ ways of defining a system model? Well perhaps..

I believe there are two different aspects to this problem. The first is creating innovative approaches to UI design that add value over the accepted designs, but whose opportunity cost may be the increase in learning time for users (this is not always the case, particularly with some RIA’s whose new model matches that of desktop metaphors user’s are familiar with). The second is the tension that can sometimes exist between usability (minimalist, simple and clear designs) and the accepted advantages that aesthetics (in other words adding unnecessary noise to the interface, purely for visual reasons – as Nielsen would argue) can bring to an interface.

In some projects UI design is restricted to designing interfaces within an existing, well defined look and feel. Hence, the job of UI designer becomes that of a guardian of principles already defined by others. This can be very frustrating when obvious flaws exist in the current interaction paradigm, which a creative approach may resolve. In these situations the flaws must be worked around, because resolving them may break the applications look and feel. This is the kind of example where usability (in this case the usability of consistency) and creativity may clash.

Perhaps the answer to this is, on occasion, to be brave. If an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary approach is taken, such that small tweaks to the look and feel are introduced over time (rather than an overhaul) a new interaction can emerge. This is often resisted by those in charge, because for some consistency is everything. I think, though, in some cases we underestimate the user. Users can adapt, more quickly that we may give them credit for, and if an approach is taken such that we can improve their ability to interact with the application, even at the expense of learning time, I believe users would prefer it.

Currently the main focus during design is on ‘user ability to do’ and not ‘user ability to learn’. In the former approach we only see what a user can do, and not their ability to adapt to new models. By listening intently to the user, and not straying from their existing mental model, we run the risk of ‘safe’ or stagnant design (in other words, sticking to what they know). If we take the latter approach it opens the door to innovation. To be really daring, I’d even suggest an approach could be taken where we stop asking users what they want and instead make assumptions about their abilities. These assumptions can be derived by doing good user research – observation/contextual enquiry/cultural probes/ethnomethodology etc the result of which may be a really good model of user activities (Activity Centred Design), by doing this we model what the user wants to achieve and from this we can design solutions the user may not even conceive of, yet once learnt will increase their efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. An alternative to this approach is to do just the opposite, involve users completely throughout the design process. By involving the user in participative design sessions, and giving them a say in the design, potentially creative solutions may emerge. It is important, though, to make the user see past their expectations of the interface, since these are defined by their use of existing applications.

If this all sounds a bit too much (and I think it may), I’d suggest trying to implement new interaction paradigms into the existing UI structure. When I worked at Schlumberger we had some rather unique situations (highly complex applications which conventional UI patterns could not cope with). Most of these situations related to complex data visualisation and I found some rather interesting technologies out there which might provide a solution (these are probably a bit dated now but what the heck). The following links highlight novel approaches that may well resolve some of the problems encountered in some applications.

  • The TimeSearcher (A novel prototype environment for interactive querying and exploration of time-series data)
  • Fish Eye Lens Menu Navigator (A brilliant application of the fish-eye lens principle, suitable for any application which requires navigation of long lists)
  • Hyperbolic Tree Browser (Stuart Card at XeroxParc came up with this some time ago, here is the latest commercial incarnation. Interesting way to navigate large data trees)
  • Table Lens (Innovative way of navigating around large data sets, very efficient and useful)

These are a few years old now, but there are many great technologies around now which can provide fantastic alternate approaches (Ajax/Flex/Laszlo etc).


Style, brand, look and feel are all very important elements of daily life -and the user experience- and are things we should be paying attention to if we really want to differentiate our products in the market place. To achieve a certain style, it is important that attention is paid to aesthetics. Yet sometimes aesthetic are forsaken at the alter of usability or cost. A usability disciple will often tell you that clarity is important and that the interface should be stripped bare of all unnecessary clutter or distraction. A graphic designer may well tell you people will sacrifice a little clarity for an increase in visual experience. Whose right? Well both actually.

Clearly most people do not use software applications solely for the purposes of being visually pleased, just as most people do not use their cars solely for the purposes of looking at them (although some do spend an undue amount of time doing just that!). Most people get into their cars every day in order to get from one place to another (as software users do), however, car manufacturers understand that one cannot build a car that is merely functional and not pay ample attention to the aesthetics.

Why? Because car manufacturers acknowledge what many usability specialists do not people are emotional beings and not simply functional robots. We make purchases based on any number of factors, usability and aesthetics being very important ones of them. If that were not the case, no one would ever buy a Porsche, why should they when a Skoda performs the same function (ok a little slower admittedly!). People would, like Homer Simpson, own several pairs of the same items of clothing so as not to spend time deciding what to wear. After all, one style of clothing serves the function of covering and protecting your body, right? What function is served having different styles?

Design, when it’s done well, is like architecture and combines the best of form AND functionality. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

This is where we should be aiming to go…


  1. Doreen Buckingham

    A very informative article, very logical approach to the subject,simple but sensible, the writer must of had a lot of experience to understand the subject so well I will now always think of Chris when I see the comment ,Form follows function, Much better the way he sees it Form and function should be one joined in a spiritual union.
    Well done and thanks very much .

  2. Shane Morris

    Chris, you inadvertantly (I presume) pose some BIG QUESTIONS about usability testing. Usability testing drives us down the path of the usable (and consistent) because (unless you have a large budget) it focusses its attention on users’ first use of an application. Where an application is to be used regularly (like a business app) then this may be quite INappropriate. Nevertheless, even in this case, we feel obliged to usability test because, quite frankly, what is the alternative? Wait for release and then evaluate in the field? Or get that large budget and do longitudinal testing?

    Innovative user interfaces require courage. You need to either be small enough that you have nothing to lose, or big enough that you can either pay to reduce the risk, or use your market clout to push through.

    Which brings us to ‘genius design’… No users necessary! Sounds like fun, at least…


  3. Christopherkhalil


    You’re quite right in what you say about Usability Testing. It certainly has it’s place, but will tend to eliminate and downplay innovative UI paradigms as the user -on first use- may well struggle with something which requires some learning.

    I’m sure if we went back into the mists of time and took a long term CLI user and Usability Tested them on a direct manipulation UI (such as Windows) they would initially struggle. The test results would give management the bullets they require to kill the idea before it’s even had a chance to be used in anger.

    Yet it’s those leaps in UI design that tend to be the most successful in the medium term.  If we look at the iPod UI design, it was quite different to anything we’d seen before.  When I first got my iPod (and naturally never bothered to read the instruction manual) I struggled with it.  Now I’ve had it for quite some time it seems so natural to use.

    So where does that leave us?  Well, I strongly feel Usability Testing is important and has its place.  If the best solution to a problem is an innovative one, then I’d suggest the best place to start Usability Testing would be to recruit users who aren’t familiar with existing paradigms.  So, if one were to design an innovative shopping cart solution, we’d need to test it on users who have never tried ecommerce before.  Those users that have been exposed to ecommerce will have strong perceptions of how it should be done.  To effectively user test it they’d have to unlearn their existing behaviour.

    For instance, I’m sure if you could find users who hadn’t ever been exposed to Office and tested the new Ribbon UI on them they’d find it perfectly natural.  Whereas testing it on existing Office user’s they’d have to adapt to the new interaction philosophy, and may not ‘get it’ as fast as those users who are new to it.

  4. Clifford

    Whatever form of gadget or kind of technology it is, innovation and usability should be observed in the product. That way it will likely offer absolute effectiveness and efficiency.

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