Usability Stifles Creativity!

Lisa Herrod

I often read comments across various usability and interaction design mail lists discussing the pro’s and con’s of user testing.

One argument that seems to come up again and again is the impact of user testing on the creative process. Experienced designers and user experience professionals frequently debate whether user testing actually stifles the design process and hinders true creativity in design.

Take navigation for example… Usable site navigation is considered so important that there is an industry of roles dedicated to it throughout the development of a site: Interaction designers, information architects, usability specialists, accessibility experts, Ajaxian god like creatures… you name it. And don’t forget the Flash developers!

But back to my point about user testing verses straight up design… is it possible to produce creative, functional and usable designs that haven’t involved some type of ‘user intervention’?

I think so. But I do think it depends on the skill of the designer, the user and the type of site.

Take a look at Etsy, a site for sellers and buyers of handmade things – basically an online craft market (not a bad geek destination for a Sunday morning date, huh?!). The site’s been around for about a year and a half and has some really cool and interesting ways to navigate and browse products (otherwise known as ‘shopping’).

Two of the Flash based navigation systems they’ve incorporated are the ‘Time Machine’ and ‘Colours’.

The current Time Machine is the third and most recent version, which allows users to browse recently listed items in reverse chronological order. It’s quite interesting to navigate this way and reminds me of the Flash based date lines we sometimes see on historical sites . ‘Colours’ presents the user with a colour palette from which to identify products of a particular hue.

I can see some really positive aspects to both of these navigation systems, presenting a much more usable interface for many users; particularly those who prefer to search visually rather than via a text based system.

The availability of multiple browse and search functionality definitely enhances the user experience and if successful, will engage the user for an extended period of time. I think Etsy does this really well… but get this, the Flash navigation was designed by a programmer with an interest in “generative graphics and the life-like properties of emergent systems”! And from what I can see, all user testing is conducted via feedback on the Etsy Blog.

So I guess I have to sit on the fence for this one. It looks like in this case, the design’s a success, despite minimal user testing.