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My team and I are facing a UX decision where we have 2 options, we can go the traditional way or the most innovative but unfamiliar way. Both are very good options but with the unfamiliar one we might encounter the problem of the user not knowing what to do and the overhead of explaining etc. At the end of the day we want people to use it, not to win any design award, should we sacrifice innovation for practicality?

I want to know your opinion in general about UX and when is ok to push boundaries, not just to a single problem that's why I'm not posting any example in particular. thanks

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  • It is not always the case that practicality and innovation are in conflict. If you consider the case of new users, then a completely new way of doing things can bring about both benefits. The point about pushing boundaries is not so much to do with UX design practice as it is a business decision. Creating a good design process and doing the research behind the decisions will give you the information you need to answer the question.
    – Michael Lai
    Jan 6, 2015 at 23:54

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In general it all depends on the context, namely the feature and the audience.

Familiar being the typical default, for some features there might be no safe familiar option, and some audiences are taking innovative elements better than others.

I would say an app should have a healthy balance of both, and the distribution between familiar and innovative should be close to the Pareto principle — 80 to 20.

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    80-20 sounds ideal, I think it's wise to always include some amount of new things, at the end of the day this is what will differentiate you from the others.
    – G Cid
    Dec 28, 2014 at 12:52
  • Exactly. Absence of new elements will deprive the product of the Emotional design feel.
    – Zoe K
    Dec 28, 2014 at 18:46
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The benefits of the innovation must far outweigh the cost. You should consider among others, the following factors:

  • The degree of innovation. Can the innovation be inferred easily, is the innovation a variation of an existing design, is it a new combination of familiar elements?
  • Reusability. Is there any potential of reusing the innovation in other screens or applications?
  • Frequency of use. Will the learning cost depreciate quickly?
  • Benefits. How much extra benefit do you get from the innovation?
  • User characteristics. Can your users learn quickly? Can users easily break the habit of using the familiar?
  • etc
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There is no definitive answer for this.

What's more, you did not specify what benefit the innovative design has over the normal one. If the two designs are on par, the innovative one should require more learning and thus be considered less usable.

But there are a few key variables you may wish to consider.

Performance vs. Preference

To quote Universal Principles of design1:

The designs that help people perform optimally are often not the same as the designs that people find most desirable.

A great example follows:

The layout of QWERTY and DVORAK keyboards

Although the DVORAK keyboard yields 30% speed improvement, the QWERTY layout is by far the most used one.

The point is, that if due various reasons (including subordinate conventions) a design is not well receipted by its users - the design is generally considered a failure.

When innovation is important

There are multitude of examples of innovations that people failed to see the benefit of when these were first published - stereo, colour television and even microchips all seemed pointless to some when initially pitched. So sometimes you harvest the fruits of innovations well after their initial release.

Some companies see innovation, and new technologies, as key to their operation. Take Apple, for example, who somewhere around 2007 decided to ditch the familiar PCI interface, in favour of the then oblivious PCIe; a change that meant substantial expenses for the professional audio and film industry. Apple justified the move in that key to Apple's philosophy is to provide cutting edge technology, which means having to forget about past compatibility nostalgia. In a way, repeating the old maxim:

No change, no progress

For some businesses and products, innovation can be a seller - if the market is already saturated with similar solutions to the same design problem, an innovative design can really be your selling point.

Perhaps a good example for this is a small task management mobile app called Sooner:

A screenshot of sooner

With so many products out there approaching task management interaction in the same conventional way, Sooner is attractive purely for its (innovative? Unique?) design.

1William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler (2003) Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design, : Rockport Publishers.

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UX is a humble art. You are asking for our opinions, but OUR opinions are irrelevent. The U in UX is for Users and it is only THEIR opinions which matter. Run some usability tests on each version. Get some hard numbers and follow where they lead.

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  • Thanks for your comment Henry, I agree that user testing is no doubt the most important anyone should do.
    – G Cid
    Dec 28, 2014 at 12:35
  • But don't you think new things will always loose in an A/B testing because they are not familiar to the user? I was asking about how much risk you are willing to take to implement a new idea.
    – G Cid
    Dec 28, 2014 at 12:46

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