The inventor of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, didn’t think the QWERTY keyboard was the most efficient way of typing. Even after the typewriter became a success, he continued to experiment with and patent new arrangements he considered to be better.
Yet, I’m still typing this article on a QWERTY keyboard. If better versions have been developed, why don’t we type on a better UX keyboard?
Here’s the truth: mastering the user experience of any product is impossible.
We could easily agree that nothing is perfect and move on, but that view is only a surface-level understanding of the problem. What’s really going on are 2 competing needs, standardization and innovation, fighting against masterful UX.
While perfect can’t be done, understanding how these 2 forces take away from the user’s experience can help you improve the effectiveness of your UX strategy.
Standardization slows down (or stops!) innovation
Let’s go back to the keyboard example. You may be wondering why we don’t use better layouts than QWERTY.
While there’s a bit of speculation regarding why the QWERTY keyboard was arranged the way it is, once it went to production, typists became familiar with the layout and were reluctant to switch. The QWERTY arrangement was the first to hit the market and was later accepted as the official standard, regardless of its level of efficiency.
Despite Sholes’s lifetime of improvements, QWERTY stuck. It didn’t matter that other versions allowed for faster typing―typists were already comfortable on the standardized keyboard.“Standardization slows innovation.”
Standardizing the keyboard was good for typists who could then work on any typewriter. And it was also good for manufacturing that didn’t have to deviate from model to model.
But standardization also prevented innovators from improving the way we type with new letter arrangements.
The many attempts to rearrange the letters on the keyboard haven’t been successful. QWERTY works well enough and remains the standard. Standards benefit UX, but they also prevent, or at best slow down, improvements.
So what happens when there are no standards?
But innovation ruins the ease of standardization
The internet is the Wild West of UX standards. Every website, platform, mobile app, and the like is a new space to reinvent what makes UX good. Not only are the functions different, but the way we achieve similar tasks varies from competitor to competitor.
Consider project management software: Trello and Asana aim to reach the same end, but they’re completely different.
You could argue that the shopping cart is a universal standard around the web, so there’s one. But what about save? The crucial save function can be represented by the floppy disk icon or a check mark, or it could even be omitted because auto-save took its place.
There are a couple of obvious positives that come from this. The competition of having the best UX drives companies to innovate more and create better products. And the user has more options to choose which product gives them their personal best user experience.
But the negative aspect of widespread and rapid innovation is that the user has to be the one to adapt when the UX design changes from product to product. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve designed the UX—when your users have to face a learning curve to use the product, it’s not 100%.
With standardization, you won’t be able to reach any higher. With innovation, users have a higher burden.
Where to balance standardization and innovation
The best we can do is balance how much we adhere to standards with how much we push for innovation.
You, the UX expert, should consider the business perspective of innovation. Where is innovation critical to your business, and where is it not?“Balance how much you adhere to standards with how much you push for innovation.”
For example, if your business is similar to others (like an email provider), then your competitive edge is the UX. This is the place to innovate since it’s a “make or break” deal. If you don’t innovate there, you don’t have much else to offer.
On the other hand, if your business is innovative in other ways—new service, new platform, etc.—you want people to easily adapt to it by designing the UX to fit standards your customers are already familiar with. This way, users may be challenged by the new service concept, but not challenged adopting it.
Your UX will not be perfect, but it can be GREAT
The other area you can find a balance of standardization and innovation is in considering the wider scope of the user’s experience. Customers do not live in brand bubbles. They float between product to product, and they interact with your product in different contexts.
Using the following 5 GREAT tips, you can take into account a wider scope of the user’s actual UX.
Give trends time to prove their worth
Trends are temporary. When you jump from trend to trend, you are leaning towards the extreme of innovation without necessarily good justification.
You can balance this by giving trends time to prove their worth before you implement them in your product.
Remember fundamental UX principles
Keep it simple, easy to learn, easy to use, intuitive, and consistent. But with this many rules, we are leaning towards standardization.
There is nothing wrong with keeping these fundamentals. However, truly innovative ideas are sure to push the boundaries. The balance is in retaining fundamentals when possible.
Emphasize onboarding and guidance
Innovative products create a learning curve either from their newness or sophistication (read: complexity). When users approach an innovative product, they will likely face a learning curve to understand it. It’s your job to make sure they have a proper “education.” We call this onboarding.
Apply insights from advanced analytics
Today, analytics can show us every nook and cranny of the user experience. The challenge is to have the right kind of analytics—and then actually make use of it.
There are several levels of analytics available, with some being more helpful than others. You can easily get information about views and clicks, but these stats aren’t as helpful as data that can show you how the user interacted with the standards and innovations of your product. Seek out information on where users hesitate, when they complete a task fast, and other granular details about the user experience.
Test usability with real users
It’s hard to match the value of real user feedback. Usability testing is the best way to get well rounded information on why and how your users interact with your product. Go to your customers or bring them into your office—this in-person feedback is valuable for the nuanced indicators you’ll be able to observe. You’ll also be able to ask follow-up questions.
When you make decisions regarding your UX, keep in mind our example of the QWERTY keyboard. With each innovative product you design, ask yourself: is this innovation worthy of becoming the standard for generations to come? If not, consider using a more familiar interface.
Before capitalizing on a UX standard, think about whether the feature be improved upon in a way that will be meaningful to your users.
While no UX will ever be perfect, there’s always room to improve. These guidelines should help you find the sweet spot between implementing standards and pushing innovation.