Where Innovation Belongs in User-Centered Design

By combining traditional user-centered activities with a greater emphasis on creating engaging designs we can bring usability into alignment with innovation in the design process.

Usability is often viewed as being inherently risk-averse, and even at odds with innovative ideas. The usability practitioner seeks to meet users’ expectations – or “mental models” – eliminate surprises rather than capitalize on them, and follow standards that provide consistency with outside interfaces. User experience designers employ design patterns that have been proven over time, and utilize prototyping tools that encourage the use of established pattern libraries. User testing also tends to focus on the first use, making it very difficult for seemingly innovative ideas to beat out the familiar and immediately recognizable user interfaces that employ well known design techniques.

As if to prove the point that usability hampers innovation, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been quoted suggesting that the company best known for it’s innovative products shuns market research and doesn’t involve users in the design process. It seems as though these quotes are often misused to suggest that Apple doesn’t perform user testing (which they certainly do), but the underlying assertion remains: don’t listen to users because users don’t know what they want.

Whether UX practitioners care to admit it, many of these claims are true. UX professionals don’t tend to be the greatest advocates of innovation, and our designs are often limited to what others are doing and the depth of our pattern libraries. These are the side-effects of lazy design, however, and not the nature of User Experience. User Experience designers have a unique opportunity to become the facilitators of holistic design and the advocates of innovation. By combining traditional user-centered activities with a greater emphasis on creating engaging designs we can bring usability into alignment with innovation in the design process. Here are some thoughts on how:

Changing Self-Image

We can come up with innovative products with a UCD approach.

Practitioners often view themselves as champions for the end user, defending helpless users from the villainy of miscreant designers and developers who would have them jump through flaming hoops to accomplish a task. While being an advocate for the end user is a noble cause, a broader view of responsibility to the user can produce superior results.

User Experience can no longer be just about ease of use, counting clicks, and conforming to standards; we as practitioners need to become the architects of beautiful user experiences. We can no longer just evaluate design, or even just create good design ourselves, we have to be able to foster user-centered creativity in our project teams at large to witness a truly user-centered experience come to life. Beautiful experiences start from the moment your user hears about your product and includes everything from your marketing message to ease of use, engaging interactions, and emotionally enriching design.

Apple can sell products with the same function and specifications for 20% more than competitors because they’ve created such an engaging holistic experience. We have to see the big picture, and if we don’t, someone with a wider vision will turn out an innovative idea that will send us to the back of the unemployment line.

Get to Know Your Users

Whether you choose to conduct marketing research or not, few will question the notion that we need to understand users to design for them. As Nico Macdonald suggested in Beyond human-centered design? “Understanding users more completely permits design creativity to be focused where it will have the greatest impact, leading to more innovation, not less.”

True, Steve Jobs swears off focus groups and is said to be fond of Henry Ford’s quote “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse,’” but does that mean user-research holds back innovation? While there is certainly some validity to the notion that users rarely think far beyond small alterations to preexisting solutions, focus groups are clearly not the shining example of user-centered design techniques.

Users will often say something that is immediately contradicted by their actions, and any good user researcher knows to pay greater attention to what the user does than what they say. It’s also the researcher’s responsibility to try to understand the disparity. Since focus groups strongly focus on what users are saying, with no validation by actions, this probably isn’t the best technique to employ in most cases. Other user-centered techniques are more appropriate for strengthening an understanding of a user base.

Ethnographic studies (such as contextual inquiry) and user personas are well suited to embolden innovative design. By watching users interact with interfaces in the context of their own home or workplace we learn a tremendous amount about them. These ethnographic techniques also help us to understand process flows comprehensively. By understanding these flows at a high level, user experience practitioners can identify opportunities to break down and rebuild a new process flow that forsakes the vestigial practices that have compounded over time, and brings in those missing elements that users find ways to incorporate on their own.

Ethnographic studies and user personas are well suited to embolden innovative design

Furthermore, if we take ethnographic data and create user personas, we can help proliferate a user-centered thought-process throughout the development team. A user focus needs to persist in all aspects of an organization, and personas create a shared understanding of who the user is and initiates thinking for those end users.

Place a greater emphasis on design

Probably the most unfortunate aspect of user testing is that a significant segment of the User Experience community has operated under the belief that any design when placed in front of users can then be evolved into an ideal solution. This notion often leaves projects with very little time allocated to up-front design, and quality suffers for it. The initial prototypes that are created are not well thought out and do not include innovative concepts, and in cases where multiple prototypes are being tested, they are often too similar to each other to provide any significant user data. Truly innovative design takes time, a lot of thought, and a variety of unique perspectives.

In order to change this practice user experience professionals and project leaders need to identify the importance of innovation in a design, and allocate sufficient time and resources to dreaming up innovative concepts. In Innovation by Design, Gerard H. Gaynor comments, “When brainstorming sessions deal with a new product or process they require extreme preparatory work, followed by a three-to-five day immersion session, and by subsequent evaluation, reexamination, and redesign sessions.” Innovation isn’t always going to be a priority, and won’t always be justified in a time or budget sensitive project, but for many interfaces including time for innovation is the difference between being a short-sighted follower and an industry leader.

In order to change this practice user experience professionals and project leaders need to identify the importance of innovation in a design

As Gaynor suggests, brainstorming sessions require extensive preparation to be effective. All too often visioning meetings get caught up in circular conversations, focus too much on altering current designs, or veer off course. A good plan is essential to draw out creative concepts and keep discussion away from current design problems and fixes.

Dream. Doodle. Design.

After dreaming up several potentially innovative concepts it’s important that UX designers avoid jumping directly into prototyping tools that utilize pattern libraries. At Interaction 11 Tim Wood aptly referred to pattern libraries as “the clip art of interaction design.” Working from established patterns is clearly not going to promote innovative designs, so rather than start your design in Axure, iRise, or Balsamiq; start by whiteboarding, doodle ideas out on a piece of paper, and when a concept is sufficiently developed, then dive into prototyping tools.

Draw innovative ideas from everywhere

Another commonly held belief that persists in the User Experience community is that interaction design belongs only to UX designers. The suggestion is that users are not designers, and should be curbed away from offering design ideas in testing. While this thought is accurate to a degree (for the reasons stated previously) it often devolves into an arrogance in design, or even territorial defensiveness. Innovation is inspiration, and inspiration can come from anywhere.

According to Eric A. von Hippel, 77% of scientific instrument innovations come from users. This is a staggering statistic that really calls into question the idea that a facilitator of user testing should shut down any design talk by the participant. This indicates that testing facilitators need to stay open-minded when it comes to users and design ideas. A test session can certainly be derailed by a user focusing click-by-click on altering an interface, but that doesn’t mean a facilitator can afford to shrug off all user-lead design ideas.

Developers also have a place in the creation of innovative ideas. Often times the people who build the products are the ones to think “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and can be an incredible source of innovative concepts. A good developer is going to be excited about working on something unique and engaging as well, and if involved in brainstorming and user testing, can become incredible advocates for user-centered design. Involving developers in the process and respecting and nurturing their ability to innovate will again move towards user-centered thinking from the entire project team.


While user-centered designers haven’t always been the greatest advocates for innovation there is incredible potential for UX professionals to become the champions of innovation and the leaders of holistic design. User Experience practitioners are in a unique position to reach out to users and across silos in pursuit of a beautiful user experience.

Furthermore, while innovation can come from anywhere only User Experience practitioners are equipped to evaluate whether a user population is willing to adopt an innovative idea. Innovation is inherently risky, and Usability can mediate that risk through testing.

Perhaps greater consideration needs to be given to how innovative ideas are evaluated in order to avoid focusing on the first use, but there is a place for User Experience in an world where innovation is king.

Jake Truemper

Jake is a UX consultant at Percifient, a leading information technology consulting firm serving clients throughout North America. You can follow Jake on Twitter via @trump29.

21 comments on this article

  1. Excellent article! As interaction designers we need to go beyond in order to achieve innovation. What you said is completely aligned with the ideas of “Strategic Design”.

  2. Andrew on

    That interaction designers should not innovate has never been my belief. In my mind they should and do innovate. Designers dream and interaction designers come up with new ways of interacting with things. Sure, that innovation must be checked and balanced with validation against historical precedent (patterns), research and user testing, but without pushing boundaries and creating new models we would not make much progress.

    Interaction design without innovation is quite boring!

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  4. Austin Govella on

    The entire premise of the article is wrong.

    Usability is a validation tool you use to validate that your designs perform the way you expect them to. Whether your design is innovative or not has nothing at all to do with usability.

    “First use” is a red herring. Any real usability testing evaluates first use against continued use to evaluate learnabiity, and continued delight versus emerging fatigue.

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  7. Lots of opportunities here for:

    * Listening to all ideas
    * Knowing when to open it up for ideas and when not to
    * When to include users and when not to
    * Mixing methods e.g. designing during a usability test to try out ideas (as an example)
    * Knowing what it takes operationally to see through a great idea
    * Not being constrained by our own frameworks, definitions and organisational boundaries
    * Shaking up what you think you know, and reframing
    * Knowing what it takes to help create a successful environment for better stuff all around


  8. @Austin Govella. It sounds like you define “Usability” as an exclusively summative field. I don’t agree with that, but regardless, I’m talking about the entire User Experience, and focusing largely on formative UX.

    @Steve Baty. Loved the response article, a lot of great thoughts there.

    @Peter Burnham… ditto to you. I enjoyed the response post, and certainly the Pat Boone 🙂 Your comment on focus groups reminded me of a Twitter exchange recently regarding Henry Ford’s quote “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.'” Even that statement can be useful, key word being “faster.” I don’t think focus groups are a very good option, but if that is the tool available to you, you can still learn through it.

    @Dan Szuc. Great thoughts. I had so many more notes on what I wanted to say than what I was able to fit into this article, and your comment has added several more. Thanks!

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  13. Jake on

    Hah! I love the image of Steve Jobs hiding in the bushes peering in at his customers.

    Regarding the “95% of products” article, I had read roughly the same in reference to “innovative” web startups – though I’m thinking the failure rate was even higher. To me that statistic really makes the case for user testing early and often, even before design begins. Innovating is essential if you want to remain competitive, but unless you want to fail 95% of the time it’s certainly in your best interest to ensure that your big new idea has a real chance at succeeding before investing too much into it.

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