When UI Innovation Isn’t Progress

Giff Constable design, UI/UX

As a visual person, I have always fantasized about being part, even a small part, of the creation of a major UI innovation on par with what Apple/PARC did for the modern desktop. I have learned some lessons the hard way about how skeptical one must be with UI “innovations”.

I fell for 3D twice in my career – once when I was young and tried to join a startup doing visual 2D and 3D navigation systems for information databases (I didn’t get the job, and the startup died), and then in 2005 when I dove head-first into 3D virtual worlds. With virtual worlds, we knew that heightened immersion helped games and simulation, and convinced ourselves that it would lead to vast improvements in areas like communication, collaboration and shopping. Not so. The value-add did not transfer – it was not worth the loss of simplicity and speed.

Over the years I have watched various implementations of 3D go nowhere, Flash website disasters, various whiz bang navigation systems for news sites (remember CNet’s heat-level tag clouds, or the spinning-globe versions of cover flow?), and more recently, glitzy iPad applications. We are suckers for visual “innovations”. It feels fresh! Consumers too get excited, but their excitement usually only lasts a week.

A major change to visual navigation needs to be accompanied by a non-incremental improvement to utility (exceptions: games and art projects). But unfortunately, too often the gain is not worth the loss in simplicity and utility, or even just the change in trained behavior.

What spurred this post is a Techcrunch article “Design Changes The Way We Experience The Web” that got repeatedly tweeted and thus showed up in all my social-news apps. In it, the author calls for more animation and immersion to increase engagement and thus business results.

No no no!

More immersion is not better experience — at least not as a general rule. Getting the result you want faster and easier is better experience. Focusing the user on the task at hand is better experience. Getting the interface out of the user’s way is better experience.

Look, I get it. Visual “newness” is seductive. It is shiny and feels like innovation. But on its own, it rarely is actual progress.

I am not arguing against experimentation and attempts to innovate, nor am I saying that design should be frozen in time. Yes, experiment with new techniques and technologies. Yes, you should re-think your designs for new mediums like a smartphone or a tablet, and new capabilities like touch. But be a skeptic. Test with a skeptic’s eye and process. Demand non-incremental improvement, or dump the “new shiny” and focus on being really, really good at the basics based on today’s best practices.