The Problem With Novel User Interfaces

Perusing the website of a User Experience Coach, I found a case study with this example mock-up for a search interface:

The user swipes a list of items to the left or to the right to include or exclude them from a list. Because the UI is novel (i.e. confusing), there is copy at the top of the interface: “Swipe cuisine left or right to include or exclude it”.

Let me humbly submit that this could be a list of checkboxes. It would be more intuitive, take up less space, and probably be less error-prone for users. The proposed UI may be delightful, distinctive, and it may demo well to outsiders, but the overall cost of this UI is probably more that 10x the cost of a list of checkboxes and it is likely inferior. I don’t want to completely dismiss this design concept, but I assert that it does not belong in the first iteration of a product unless the company building it has an unlimited amount of time and money dedicated to the project.

However, if a designer presents a client with the swipe-left-or-right interface or a list of checkboxes, which one do you think they’ll pick? On the other hand, if you ask them “what is the biggest issue with your software?” one week before launch how likely are they to say “selecting cuisines in the search is too boring”?

Unfortunately many people building software expect designers produce unusual interfaces. A list of checkboxes doesn’t get you many likes on Dribbble.

Is There a Place for Novel User Interfaces?

Innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

– Dieter Rams

One successful and novel user interface that comes to my mind is the capacitive touch wheel on Apple’s first iPod. The intersection of smart design and technology produced a compelling project that delighted users.

But can a novel interface be an end in itself?

In the post “Some Things Can’t Be wireframed”, the iPhone app Keezy is sighted as a novel interface that wouldn’t survive a wireframing process. This interface is an end in itself. It evokes curiosity and makes the user want to figure out what it does.

However, as soon as I used the app I was not at all delighted. I found that the app couldn’t technically deliver on any of its promises – it had no substance. (Spolier alert: When you touch a square it plays a sound file.)

If you’re involved in creating a software product or if you’re footing the bill for one, keep the job to be done of your users in mind and beware user interfaces that are novel for the sake of novelty.

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