The Problem With Playing It Safe

Thinking too rigidly about user experience can make us blind to new opportunities.

An age ago, back in 2004, I was working in Amsterdam designing a website for Philips. User experience as a practice was still relatively new. There were rules, but they were different depending on who you asked. Best practices were a nice idea, but they weren’t very consistent. And that meant that everybody, and nobody, was right 100% of the time.

Our UX guy on the Philips project was a contractor – I’ve quite forgotten his name – and he was of the mind that things should be done just so, and any deviation would be a mistake. Thinking about it now I guess that makes sense: if you bill yourself as an expert in a field nobody knows anything about, you better at least be confident.

Of course, at the time I disagreed. I was an unruly, ego-driven designer, so I disagreed with everything. But in this case, my reasoning was sound: in my view the user experience discipline was too young to have all the answers. We were dictating behavioural patterns to users while knowing scarcely more than they did. And more importantly (to a designer, at least) we were missing opportunities to innovate on the UI side by allowing ourselves to be constrained by rules that were unbaked at best, and outright guesses at worst. Dogma seldom breeds insight.

It didn’t sit right with me, but I had to admit that my opinion was no more valid than his. And letting the process be driven by design would’ve been the tail wagging the dog, so we forged ahead, despite the UX field being in such turbulent flux that by the end of the project all our supposed best practices were obsolete anyway.

I’ve never forgotten that discussion, and I still maintain that the laws of UX, even as well-established as they are these days, can still be wilfully bent. Purists will point breathlessly to some high-profile case study (“Amazon changed the corner radius on their Buy Now button to 2px and it saved them $300M!”) but these are effects that are observable only at scale. For most everyday purposes, the rules, within reason – though not without good reason – can be challenged. It’s how innovation happens.

It is a mistake to dictate terms to users based on an overly-confident UX model, or to assume UX as a practice is fully baked. We should not be afraid to engage users on unfamiliar terms, or to ask them to follow new patterns. Their behaviour outside the sandbox can help us discover new ways to solve old problems.

How will we know if we aren’t willing to take risks?