Innovation vs Usability - Grudge match of the century!

posted Mar 4, 2013, 4:42 PM by Jenee Pearson Hughes   [ updated Mar 18, 2013, 4:35 PM ]
I'm a huge proponent of user-driven design, but something occurred to me recently:

If you only make things that fit existing paradigms, you'll never make anything that's out of the box.

In usability, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that "make the computer work for the user" means "figure out what the user does, and mold the computer perfectly to their behavior."

Sure, it'd be less frustrating for the user to not have to change their habits. But if you don't make major changes to their productivity, what motivation do they have to change to your product? You're not going to make huge changes in the world if all you offer is incremental improvements on existing systems. 

Take writing a novel: It used to be that you'd write it more-or-less linearly on a typewriter. Now, writers have the option of starting anywhere, going back and forth, inserting phrases, removing others. But I'd imagine that, to people who were used to typewriters, moving to computers would've been frustrating. 

Forget novelists, even: a big use of typewriters was filling out pre-printed forms. With a computer, you don't have an actual piece of paper, so you can't line up the lines! That's a usability nightmare! Let's just forget about word processors, okay?

It's a delicate balancing act, trying to promote both innovation and usability. As engineers, it's our job to find the sweet spot.