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Disruption versus Usability: has UXD become TOO good?

8th July 09

Posted by Patricia McDonald

Posted in design

Mulling over the various excellent posts springing up on why there isn’t more great work in the digital space it struck me that one area rarely discussed is the fundamentally different definitions of what constitutes “great”.

Traditional agencies are instinctively drawn to disruptive work-work that stops the consumer in their tracks and forces them to pay attention. Digital specialists on the other hand are focussed on a smooth and seamless user experience. Ideas that disrupt this experience risk increasing bounce rates from a site for designers working to the 10 second stay-or-go “rule” . This tension between disruption and usability is so profound it’s hardly surprising that we struggle to find a common understanding of what great looks like, much less deliver it.

Traditional agencies in the digital space (and indeed traditional digital agencies) are easily seduced by the power of Flash and the wonders of animation; we want attention and spectacle but what happens next? Why should the user stay, what are we asking them to do and where should they go next?  The campaign microsite is perhaps the prime expression of this tendency-as Iain Tate puts it, impressively punchily, in Campaign:

“No one cares about your bloody microsite. In 2009 the flashy high production value microsite is finally starting to feel irrelevant. Sites that seem to do everything, but deliver nothing.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, design in the digital space has become so seamless, effortless and professional that it’s arguably all getting a bit predictable. Usability was (quite rightly) the holy grail for many years, reaching its apotheosis in Jakob Nielsen’s controversial useit.com-the ultimate in functionality.  Now it seems though that perhaps every easy, effortless site is much like every other easy, effortless site.

Jakob Nielsen's useit.com
Jakob Nielsen’s useit.com
So perhaps it’s time to think beyond usability and bring the magic. To consider that perhaps a little disruption and a little time for beauty can actually add something to the user experience? In his excellent post on Visual Decision Making, Patrick Lynch points out that beauty, far from being an indulgence, can actually enhance usability: “Research shows that website users are powerfully influenced by aesthetics, and that positive perceptions of order, beauty, novelty, and creativity increase the user’s confidence in a site’s trustworthiness and usability.”

Likewise, Nielsen’s partner Donald Norman’s seminal book on “Emotional Design” argues that attractive design makes consumers more likely to solve problems and find solutions, albeit not at the expense of core usability:

“Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that makes something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier to find solutions to the problems they encounter”

One might argue the same of wit, entertainment and surprise-of sites that challenge the conventions of user interface and offer something fresh. Dontclick.it for example disrupts our expectations of user interface and forces us to interact with the site in a new and different way. It does challenge familiar behaviours but (I would argue) intrigue makes us stick with it rather than back away. Likewise, Orange’s “Never Ending” website no doubt breaks all kinds of rules but offers a marriage of idea and interface that opens up intriguing possibilities.

dontclick.it by the Institute for Interactive Research

dontclick.it by the Institute for Interactive Research

So how can we best mash up these two apparently opposed agendas? How else can we marry idea and interface to deliver fresh, absorbing brand experiences and what might we learn about navigation and user experience in the process that might move us beyond clicks and pages?

Perhaps by starting with an open and humble mashing up of old and new world skills, as discussed at length in Mel’s excellent post on “Marketing Mashup” and by using that mash up to think in new ways and develop new outputs:

  • Acknowledging how much we have to learn from each other’s instincts.
  • Marrying the ability to make on-line experiences simple, useful and usable with the ability to shock, surprise and shake up perceptions.
  • Bringing delight to simple experiences and usable interfaces to disruptive ideas.
Orange's Never Ending Website

Orange's Never Ending Website

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