Convention vs Innovation — Your Product Need Not Be 100% Bold, Unique or Original

Developing original, ground-breaking work comprising really novel experiences is something all of us designers strive for. It’s in our DNA to think outside the box, differentiate ourselves from the work of our peers and make our clients’ stand out from their competitors.

A lot of the mandate about being unique originates from the misconceived notion that design is art. While one can write a whole post about the “Art vs Design” debate, here is a key difference. Art is a personal expression of the artists and they are liberated to innovate without any fear of harming anyone or solving real-world problems. However, design needs to be purposeful and must always be evaluated by its effectiveness towards solving real problems for real users.

So, should designers always strive to reinvent the wheel? The short answer is no. It might feel cool to do something unconventional, but cool does not always equate to efficiency, rather it can be quite frustrating. Let me provide a few thoughts on why forcing yourself to be unique is not always the best solution for you and your users.

First and foremost, originality is not a key measure of success in the eyes of your users when it comes to functional design. Majority of them appreciate familiarity over novelties. They form their expectations for a new product, based on what they are used to doing on other sites and apps. For instance, if they are used to certain interactions behaving a certain way, they expect them to work like that and don’t want to worry about what will happen if they tap or click on something.

The more your users will feel in control of your system, the more they are likely to be comfortable with it. On the other hand, if you deviate from standard conventions too much, your site or app could be perceived to be harder to use, making them feel insecure.

“Users spend most of their time on other websites. Knowing that, we should be mindful of whether or not we’re causing confusion and alienation when we deviate from design standards and conventions”

- Jakob Law

Secondly a vast majority of designs aren’t original in the first place, even if we think they are. Everything is built off something that preceded it. Since designers don’t work in a vacuum, it’s inevitable we get inspiration from another design. Instead of focusing on creating something entirely new, focus on what can inspire you.Remember that the solution you seek is probably already out there and all you need to do is to find it.

“if we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

- Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist”

Creativity in design is the ability to take past experiences and new information and synthesize them to create something new. That’s why designers should always be passionate about expanding their knowledge of the world and stay up to date with current trends. This cumulative knowledge and experience is what will help you craft more insightful designs.

Last, I want to end by leaving a word of caution. Following conventions doesn’t mean that you blindly copy or create an exact match of an existing product. Blindly reproducing the visible layer without digging deeper into the layer underneath will put you and your team on a completely wrong path. To base your work on existing design, you should understand why that product looks and works the way it does. And when you analyze the designer’s intention, you can innovate to make your solution better and different from the one that was the source of “inspiration”. This can be about small granular elements like a button interaction or larger experiences like restructuring a checkout flow.

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