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Designers Dilemma: visual convention vs. breaking new ground

January 21st 2009 by Posted In: Design, Research methods and approaches

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Without innovation the internet would still look like this. (Gutenberg's printing press. Photograph by Matthias Kabel)

Without innovation the internet would still look like this. (Gutenberg’s printing press. Photograph by Matthias Kabel)

The dilemma of visual convention vs. ground breaking new design seems to be a fearsome concern for usability specialists.  In a recent blog post on the Concept 7 blog, Stefan Wobben quotes a paper by Luis Santa-Maria and Mary C. Dyson form the University of Reading that investigated the impact of violating visual conventions on user’s performance and orientation. Santa-Maria and Dyson explain:

“Although initially violating visual conventions might hinder user performance and leave users disoriented this experiment indicates their experiment indicates that these problems can be short-lived and users can adapt reasonably fast to a new set of visual conventions.”

This is good to hear, yet its no news as such. If design had always only followed convention we would not have progressed from the written word to the printing press to computers and the internet.

“So the decision to whether conform or violate visual conventions when designing a website should ponder that although users might adapt quickly to novelty there is an initial performance hindrance and disorientation.”

They have a good point there in encouraging those violations. Too many studies focus on first time use, but not repeat users, how behaviour changes over time, and the experience and use of the system by expert users. A single lab study as a Q+A exercise just before the launch of your website is not going to do the trick in gaining this understanding. Usability is an ongoing process, not a one of label of approval. As Harry Brignal pointed out on his blog: “A UX designer’s job is never done.”

The one great thing about remote usability testing is that it is cost efficient and can therefore be carried out more often, than a lab study. Webnographer, as a remote usability testing tool, makes ongoing testing simple and affordable. It makes it easy to test the learning curve and behaviour and satisfaction of experienced users.

As Jared Spool explained back in 2003 small ongoing changes carry far less risk, then a major relaunch and re-design, which is very likely going to fail. As with the printing press, changes in improvements were small, stretched out over a length of time and we ended up with the internet, which makes the spreading of ideas and information easier than ever. For website design, the small changes allow you to measure the effect of that change on your users, and you will find out whether the change has made your site better or just different, and how it affects your users over time.

  • Whitney

    Speaking of visual conventions, why do you use fully justified text when it just makes the text harder to read. For a few summaries of why this is, start here: http://adamsdrafting.com/system/2007/05/03/justified-text-versus-ragged-right-text/

  • Sabrina

    Whitney, thanks for the feedback. I have fixed the text-alignment, so that it should be easier to read now.

  • RaiulBaztepo

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo