Why designers shouldn't try to force innovation

In 1994 I was 8. I vividly remember standing in the cafeteria of my elementary school, picking up a dime with the current year on it, and proclaiming, "by the year 2000 we're going to have flying cars." How could we not? Everything is possible, thats the mantra I (like most American children) grow up around. Not only that, 6 years was nearly a lifetime away.

19 years later, I don't think we're much closer to flying cars - but then again, I have a feeling we're closer than most people suspect.

Idealists have a habit of designing or seeing new technology in movies - set in the year 2XXX - and trying to see how we can make it today. Immediately. Usually theres a reason why even if we could implement some kind of future technology today, we won't. Simply put, the entire ecosystem needs to be ready for game changing technology to be adopted properly.

Lets go back to flying cars for a second. Movies tells us this is our inevitable future, I imagine the road map looks a little something like this:

  1. Self driving cars
  2. Mass adoption of said cars
  3. Using the same technology for self flying cars.

Removing the human element of flying cars is what makes it actually seem more realistic. But the only way we'll get there is by removing the human element from driving first. Its a much less disruptive progression.

With technology such as video chatting, we had very few people buy the phones with the capable technology, but there was no mass adoption. Nobody wanted to be the first bozo to waste their money on it, and nobody knew anyone else who owned one, or actually used it. And if they did know even one person, they probably didn't want to video chat with them anyway.

Now nearly all phones have that technology built right in - and video chatting is super easy. Whats more surprising is that people don't really feel the need to use it all that much. Which obviously questions our assumptions about how future tech will actually be used.

All that being said, in the design world, if you care about design, you peruse dribbble at least occasionally. Its a great place to see what kind of trends are "up and coming" in the UI world. Especially considering many of today's "top" designers are releasing sneak peaks of their upcoming projects there.

So what's the problem? Well, people crave innovation (consider waiting for the new iPhone, you want something - anything new and exciting) but equally so, good UX demands intuition - any time spent struggling to learn a new UI, is a negative for the user.

Sometimes innovations are natural when they occur - Atebits I believe, came up with the side panel navigation menu now seen in almost all mobile apps. Its wonderful - instantly learned, and immediately intuitive - even when it was spanking fresh. Same with the "pull to reload" feature (also from Atebits). 

Other times, designers are trying to "force" innovations, because they want to solve a problem that people don't have. They want to be different, and exciting, and to be credited with revolutionizing UI. But heres a newsflash - that doesn't equate to anything except a waste of time, and a potentially shitty UX. Consider the occasionally seen mobile circular menu popularized by Path. Barf. There will never be a standardization of menu items on a circular menu across apps (as their placements cannot become uniform). This is a terrible UX. I don't care how pretty it is, f that noise.

As form factors are constantly changing for the way we work with tech - designers will be presented with many many different ways to innovate. Approach the challenges as they are presented. Trying to reinvent the wheel before the car is built will get you nowhere fast.