If you’ve ever worked at a software company, you’ve heard somebody say this during a design session:
“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”
As liberated and brash as we may seem these days, we are—now more than ever—fighting a creative culture of fear. There are alternative views, of course, but this is something that designers and developers are dealing with on a regular basis.
And it’s not just in tech. It can be seen in other design-focused industries as well. The movie industry is afraid to stray from branded, proven content. In the next 5 years, there are already 70 movies planned for major release that are either franchise installments or sequels—and that doesn’t even include all the films based on successful books.
The publishing industry is afraid to explore too far outside the boundaries of beefy Klout scores and celebrity circles. Anything to drive clicks.
And we in the software industry often find ourselves struggling to break free of “conventions” and “standards” in the realms of UX design and front-end development. Interfaces are now crawling with informal standards that have quickly made their way from inventive to inevitable: hamburgers, swipes, likes, scrolls, and much, much more. Websites with repetitive themes fly off the shelves of places like Squarespace and WordPress. The draw? They’re easier to assemble than Ikea furniture.
And killer consumer apps now amass millions of users in the blink of an eye.
In our own design process we often get stuck asking ourselves, “How does do it?”
This is quickly followed by questions like “Well, what are users used to?” and “Can we use similar concepts for inspiration?” It’s a natural reflex. The force to create a unicorn is strong in all of us.
But while killer apps and Ikea-style websites do positively influence the masses, we should recognize that our natural instinct to want to replicate, use-for-inspiration, or follow the leader are reflexes. They’re good reflexes, but they’re reflexes nonetheless.
They’re questions that any smart product manager, UX designer, or developer would ask. But like any other impulse, we need to learn to control them. Reinventing the wheel is actually part of the gig. We need reinvention just as badly as we need conformity—arguably, even more.
Somebody has to do it, so ask instead, “Why shouldn’t it be me?”
Because while we must always keep an eye on cost, efficiency, and expectations, there are dangers to standards. Here are a few elements of balance to keep in mind, despite pressures and predilections.
Familiarity vs. fit
Implementing familiarity allows users to feel as if they know it, but do they thrive with it in the context of what you’re building? Always jumping to the most common denominator tricks people into the wrong priority of consideration. It predisposes people to first ask, “How is this done?” instead of, “What’s the best way for our users to do this?”
Now that’s not to say that users will always know what’s best on a broader scale. They often don’t. But the shift in question changes the frame of mind that’s critical to creative thinking. Maybe a better horse isn’t the best way of getting from point A to B.
Take infinite scrolling, for example. Infinite scrolls are everywhere, from social media to ecommerce and even mom-and-pop blogs. Hundreds of thousands of people have decided that smart-loading vertical navigation is effectively the default navigation for users looking to receive information. Before this it was grid layouts.
It took a company like Tinder to try something new—card-based swiping—and now we’re seeing a trend towards this type of information distribution instead.
Consider for a moment the undying popularity of “listicles.” Why does everybody love them?
One reason is because they’re fun and efficient to share alongside personal commentary (“OMG, #8 is totally me…”).
But a bigger reason is because they offer a sense of certainty and a clear insight into the upcoming interaction investment. With a numbered list, people know what they’re going to get and exactly how much of it. For many people in many contexts, that’s an anxiety-free experience. Not for the glamour-image ogler, but certainly for the laser-focused information seeker.
It’s important that users aren’t surprised by unnecessary spins on commonplace concepts (we can all just stick with the gear for “Settings”), but it’s more important that we respect the context and preferences of the user. Often those 2 paths will converge (they are popular for a reason after all), but it’s important that we allow that convergence by thought and not just precedent.
Efficiency vs. engagement
Responsive design is another design/implementation method that has crept its way into the everyday lexicon of website design as well as HTML5 and hybrid app development. It’s “future-proof,” it’s effective for sharing (single URL) and SEO, and it’s infinitely easier to manage than alternatives from an upgrade perspective. It’s also cheaper than a stand-alone native app.
It’s efficient. But is it engaging?
That’s a very relevant question to consider.
Again, the 2 (efficiency and engagement) will often converge, but perhaps it’s not always the case. Or better yet, perhaps there’s a higher level of convergence for both?
Many people are happy with incremental creative improvements. However, many of the most transformative people, and plenty of early adopters, thrive off of rigorous innovation. They’re truly able to reach full capacity when they’re helping set a new standard.
Not only is this something to consider at the individual level, but something to consider at the brand level.
Leaning vs. leading
Lately, much emphasis has shifted to the beauty and magnetism of the content and away from the elegance and innovation of the experience. In some cases, this is the right focus. In some cases, it is not.
Look at a website like Seven Digital Daily Sins, or an app like Phind. They’ve taken some standards and some popular practices and used them to inspire elegant and unique experiences that offer just enough familiarity for quick adoption, but more than enough individuality for credible leadership.
You don’t always want to go out on a limb, but if you want users to perceive you as a leader, every once in a while you’ll need to take a leap.
Enough people have been bitten by the short-sighted decision to design and build from scratch (“Why don’t we just build it ourselves?”), so nobody wants to burn cycles on nominal wins when tools and trails have already been blazed and proven to save money and satisfy users.
But if the goal is overall growth and success, you can’t lose sight of priorities. Perhaps reinventing the wheel is exactly what you need to do? In the world of product development and UX design, innovation is integral, context is critical, and the user—not the content—is king.