Thinking Inside The Box

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Creative technology often demands that user experience designers “think outside the box”—to come up with new exciting ways of engaging the user. Incredible innovation happens this way—new standards are set and new experiences are defined. However, I’m a big believer that the concept of “thinking outside the box” is often overrated, especially from an information architecture standpoint.

Consider the shower faucet. Once upon a time, shower faucets were simple contraptions. There was a cold-water knob and there was a hot-water knob. You would turn each knob to adjust the temperature; you didn’t have to figure out how to use it. It was obvious. Then, in the Sixties or Seventies, some engineer came along and decided that maybe you could combine the cold and hot water faucets into one faucet.

Suddenly figuring out how to work the temperature and water pressure became infinitely more complicated. There arrived on the market a plethora of new faucets, each operating differently. How many of you have been to a hotel or a friend’s house and spent twenty minutes trying to figure out which way to turn the shower knob to get the right temperature? Or ended up getting scorched?

Similarly with interface design, there tends to be an overemphasis on innovation when user experience should mostly be a practical consideration. With enterprise software, users care less about having a slick, groovy experience than they do about getting the information they need to get their jobs done quickly and easily. This doesn’t mean that design has to be dull or ugly. But it’s important not to overthink the interaction design. Otherwise too much distracting information or too many obscure interactions may get in the way of a person trying to do their work. Designing an optimal user experience is sort of like feng shui: it’s about de-cluttering or de-confusing, so that the user doesn’t have to think so hard about what they need to do.

Often standards in software design, which have been developed over time, work best because users have certain expectations. Top navigation is a good example of a standard that probably doesn’t need to keep being re-invented. One prominent museum site decided it might be more interesting to place the navigation at the bottom of the page rather than the top. This seems awkward and unexpected, an innovation just for the sake of innovating. Designers should cater to a user’s expectation unless there’s a good reason not to. Information and actions shouldn’t be made obscure just for the sake of doing something different.

Before starting your next project or task, ask yourself:

  • Is there a reason for designing it this way?
  • Will it speed up a process for the user?
  • Is the innovation something that is easily learnable?

There have been many innovations that speed up user processes. Consider the Twitter invention of refreshing a feed by swiping down. This is a great example of a new innovation that required the user to learn a new way of doing something. The initial learning curve was rewarded because a) once learned, it’s never forgotten and b) it makes life easier for the user.

Indeed, this method of refreshing the page has now become a standard action for mobile devices, from email to news sites, indeed anything that exists in a list view.

Information architecture and interaction design don’t always need to be innovative or flashy. They just need to make sense.