Can design be both intuitive and innovative?

By Jan Srutek

Can a design be both intuitive and innovative at the same time? This places two opposing concepts in stark contrast to one another: new and different versus known and familiar.

We often require products to be intuitive. That is a valid requirement – products should of course be easy to learn and use. But intuitiveness is an elusive term. It is actually better described in a much more mundane way; simply as familiarity, as Jef Raskin argued in his seminal book 'The Humane Interface'. When people act intuitively, they are effectively basing their actions on past experiences and knowledge. In other words, they are basing their actions on something that has been learnt before.

At the same time, it is often required that a design is innovative. New and fresh. Something that hasn’t been done before. Different from the competitor’s product.

Making things familiar is a good thing

Good design could be both. Who says that innovations cannot be familiar? You probably know that feeling when a new revolutionary technology hits the market, and you immediately recognise its meaningfulness. That’s because you can imagine the technology being used in a familiar framework of personal relevance.

Making things familiar is a good thing, even when aiming for something new and innovative.

People naturally resist change and so it helps if people have something to relate to in novel products. Metaphors are used in interaction design exactly for that reason. They help us learn and understand things we have not encountered before thanks to similarity with things we already know.

For an optimal learning curve, it is important to provide mental handrails for the brain to hold on to as it takes a wild ride through an unexplored territory of a new product. People need a starting point that helps them get their bearings in unknown information spaces; a skeleton upon which to hang their mental model of how things work here.

Introducing new things

How can we manage the introduction of the new and unseen then?

We mentioned metaphors and orienting starting points already. The list continues with following good old usability guidelines and principles, and obviously testing with actual users.

However, beyond usability there is a larger challenge of being perceived as useful and desirable by the target audiences. That could be a harder one to crack at times.

To overcome this, we can find inspiration in the movies industry. Sci-fi movies (the good ones) have been doing a great job at pushing the boundaries of what is perceived as useful and desirable now and in the conceivable future. They do it by framing the new in the context of the known and familiar.

If your customers can imagine themselves using your new product or the latest design improvement you have won half the battle. Or when they see others use it. A psychological principle known as Social Proof goes a long way here. When combined with engaging storytelling and emotional design, this could be really powerful.

You don’t have to shoot fancy polished concept videos to make people envision the future experiences in their heads. Create storyboard-like visualisations of future scenarios. Or just plaster that new outlandish feature or eye-popping visual over an existing product. Then select a sub-set of your visitors or existing customers, and test if people will understand its value in a familiar context.

We have got a robust arsenal of UX tools to rely on for concepting, prototyping, iterating, and refining products in a safe way. Smaller incremental changes are important and valuable, but sometimes it takes a bigger step to leap ahead of the competition.

Prototype and embrace change

Change is vital, so experiment and try new things. It is not an option for businesses not to change and innovate these days. Smart companies are constantly prototyping not just individual products, but also new business models. Embrace change, welcome it, plan for it, and manage it through iterative design and research. And continue to strive for making things that little more intuitive in the process.

What do you think?