Design & UX
By Lisa Herrod

Usability Stifles Creativity!

By 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.

  • The colours interface is quite interesting. Discovered purely by accident that once you have clicked on the interface, you can use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out on the display. Not only does it give you more fine grained control on the hue you are selecting, but allows you to zoom in on the thumbnails that match the hue you’ve selected.

    The interface probably only has a select market, but in terms of thinking outside the box, its definitely a challenge the current methods of navigation.

  • I find both constraints and feedback can inspire creativity rather than stifle it. Creativity in a commercial sense only works when it is addressing a need. Having a somewhat formalised feedback process can supply you with a steady stream of creative responses from the developers (whether they be programmers, designers, UX architects, QA or otherwise).

  • Moi

    Did you actually test out the color program? It doesn’t seem to work at all. It gives you just about every color except for the one you clicked.

  • firstwater

    I don’t see this is an either-or thing. I would not say that this type of product display is especially useful, but it is engaging and interesting to play with. It might spark my interest to look at a product I’d not otherwise find with a directed hierarchical click-through path (i.e., clothing>women’s>t-shirt>bird…or however they do it).

    In that sense, the interface is serving a marketing need, and attempting to engage the user.

    I would love to see their plans for evaluating the success of this – does it increase browsing? purchases?

  • Lisa Herrod

    Hi guys,

    Interesting comments… One theme that seems to be coming through is the notion of experimentation in navigation, both by the designer and the user. As Mr Smiley said, it’s probably best suited to a select market. I don’t see this working particularly well on a banking site, a government institution or an information based site, for example.

    Wioota mentioned that constraints and feedback can actually inspire rather than stifle creativity, and I completely agree. The title I chose for this post was definitely tongue in cheek, although it’s a comment I frequently hear online and on the job. Constraints, whether they be imposed from the outset or as a result of iterative usability evaluation, can challenge us to solve problems in ways we haven’t had to before. This can lead to great and inspiring work.

    Sometimes I wonder if people are afraid of running user testing for fear of having to rework their designs – Do they have enough time? Are they too attached to their design? Do the results of user testing invalidate their expertise? I don’t believe so, but I certainly think people are sometimes fearful of this.

    Unfortunately though, it’s often the ridiculously short time frames and resultant pressures that interfere with this process.

    With regard to evaluating success, as Firstwater has touched on, benchmarking the effects of product changes throughout the process can be invaluable in justifying future work. As we all know too well, like most things, it usually comes down to time and money…which is why it doesn’t seem to occur as often as it could.

  • Roberto

    I’m struggling to see a correlation between testing and creativity.

    Creative designers shouldn’t be stifled by usability testing, it should confirm and inform their design rationale.

    Of course, clever people can do a very good job of designing an interface without user testing. BUT, there are many things that Etsy could improve – their “cute” naming of their features doesn’t always give a clear scent or indication as to the outcome of a click (what is Alchemy, that is the difference between time machine 1 & 2), there is no “title” / “alt” bahaviour on the navigation, would it be more desirable to show more of the sellers other items in the right hand column, given there is a fair amount of whitespace at the bottom of that column.

    Usability testing can ALWAYS be user to validate and inform decisions. I see no reason why this should stifle creativity. If anything, usability testing should allow the designer to test waters that they may otherwise be wary of.

  • twalve

    Whether or not the user testing involves observing a single considered panel for an hour or many users over the years of a designer’s career, I think user testing forms an inherent part of all great design.

    Whether the product evolves through user centered design or genius design, the audience must be the hub of the process.

    If the user comes off looking awkward on their geek date, they certainly won’t bring their next date to your site, and they probably won’t come back.

    If Etsy added user testing to their arsenal, they may find that their profits – like their happy customer’s experiences – became “repeat”-able rather than “discover”-able.

    Imagine a test where a potential customer is given a $100 and a shopping list. Tell them they can keep whatever is left over after they’ve filled the list, but that they’ll lose a dollar for every minute that they shop. Now watch whether they use the search box or Flash navigation. Watch whether they can use the Flash navigation at all or whether its inaccessible to them.

    One of those blue dots holds some beautiful Chinese beads, but I can’t remember which dots I’ve been to this visit, let alone on a previous visit.

    Add a close button to the discovered items to keep the canvas under control.
    Add a drag and drop bookmark folder so I can keep track of my discoveries.

    And test whether either of those ideas adds to the enjoyment of the tools and the site :)

  • I don’t know they seem like nice “gadgets” or experiments but i would never really use those kind of navigation. The timemachine does not work at all with me btw takes ages and then some to load.

  • Mr pseudonym

    I WANT usability to stifle “creativity”. That is a GOOD thing.

    Artists think that they possess some superhuman insight that entitles them to make other people miserable. They do not. Nor are they particularly benevolent, nor are they particularly smart. The artists of my acquaintance are no smarter or dumber than anyone else, and just as dangerous when given tools.

  • Lisa Herrod

    Twalve, nice ideas! I like the shopping task, it’s a interesting concept.

    As for your two other suggestions,

    Add a close button to the discovered items to keep the canvas under control.
    Add a drag and drop bookmark folder so I can keep track of my discoveries.

    I’m *really* glad you made those, I’ve been planning a post on that for a while. That is, the need for useful recommendations in usability reviews…more on that soon :)

  • Paul Nattress

    I studied design at university and they taught us that design, as opposed to art, is a combination of form and function where the form compliments and enhances the function and vice versa. Based on this teaching I tend to fall into the opinion that if anyone feels that usability stifles creativity then they are artists, rather than designers. I strongly recommend that only designers be allowed to design. Artists should stick to art.

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