Hey, Designers: Stop Trying To Be So Damned Clever

Clever is nice, but effective interfaces matter more. Here, Etsy's Creative Director Randy J. Hunt explains why.

In every Web product you create, you should prioritize effective over clever. As you probably already know, sometimes the equation gets reversed. During the design process, you can easily want to surprise and delight the user. So you create a design element--an interaction pattern, a naming scheme, a symbol, and so on--that is fresh and extremely inventive. However, the cleverness of your creation obscures the intent of the product. And the cleverness of that first impression doesn’t hold up over time--and I don’t mean over years; I mean over only the first few moments of use. After that first rush of newness, if the intended value of the product is not clear, or the functional intent isn’t obvious, the novel idea means nothing.

Imagine this moment. A new app you’ve installed promises an elegant and easy way to capture simple notes as text. You’re presented with a blank white screen and a keyboard, and you start typing. So far, so good. But when you finish typing, now what? How do you save your note? How do you create a new note?

In this example, suppose that the designer associated the "save" action with an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen--the same gesture used to scroll through a list of items! It’s a clever intention, but perhaps too clever. Clever solutions have their place--and we’ll get to that--but they should always serve the effective use of the product.

What's below will help you focus on intent and evaluate it as a prioritization filter. You will learn how to edit out the creative clutter that gets in the way of user understanding and product functionality. You will also discover that you can create products that are both effective and clever.

Recognizing Clever

What cleverness factors work against the intent of a design?

Unclear Naming
Typically, when you are introducing a new product or trying to attract new users to an existing product, clever language just puts more hurdles in the way of potential users. Every conceptual leap that you ask users to make reduces a product’s potential for success. Understanding should be the result of one cognitive process, not several. That is, any language or naming scheme within the product should be descriptive rather than suggestive or metaphoric, especially when you are describing core features and elements.

Sometimes designers create new terminology for a product that isn’t easily understood without explanation. For example, imagine a product that allows you to send a message to many people at the same time, and it’s called Signal. That name does not convey the product’s intent; better to call it Broadcast, which immediately makes the product’s intent clear.

Over time, with any product, it is possible to apply a vocabulary that is based on the experiences people have with your product and allows them to acquire a deeper understanding of that product. A great example of new vocabulary that emerges from product use is retweet: the action of sharing a tweet that you’ve seen in your Twitter timeline. The term was started by the Twitter community and later incorporated into the application itself. In this case, an invented word was integrated into the product, but it wasn’t confusing. Its use had already been established by the product’s users.

Does this mean that designers must produce dull, pedestrian work? Of course not. But the cleverness or “extras” that you add to a product should be like a little salt and pepper sprinkled on a well-prepared dish. They can add to and even improve the recipe, but the seasoning should not be a main ingredient.

Newness for Newness’s Sake
Consider again the earlier example of using a swipe action to save a note. This kind of design excess is common in many programs and apps. What if a designer, in an effort to create something fresh, instead renames that "save" action as "done"? Done may describe a state of being, but it does not specifically describe what the user wants to do. When you’re done, are you exiting, saving, saving and closing, or doing something else entirely?

It’s natural when a creative person wants to invent something new. But what he can miss in that inventive moment is the opportunity to build on the knowledge that users already have. Part of a product design strategy is bringing the user farther down your current trail, not returning him all the way back to the trailhead to begin again.

For example, consider the concept of radio buttons in an app or program. Most users already understand that by pressing one button, they are making a single, exclusive choice. If you abandon that experiential knowledge and introduce a dial or some other selection gizmo, your product must work even harder to help the user understand its intention. The clever design choice works against intent.

Pressure to Create a Marketable Product
The need to creatively market an updated product sometimes pushes designers toward overly clever choices. It is possible to wave around phrases like “new and improved” to cut through the noise of the marketplace, but once your product has the user’s attention, its “new and improved” features must absolutely support the product’s intent. Otherwise, they will simply challenge and frustrate the user by making a familiar product confusing and unnecessarily complicated. Your “improved” product will be seen as gimmicky, not valuable.

Personality Mismatches
Every design feature must consistently fit the personality of the product. Consider a first-of-its-kind app that helps you understand prescription drug interactions, a very serious topic. If the designer, in an effort to convey healthiness in her color and type choices, instead inadvertently creates a childlike feeling, the app’s intent is derailed. A very straightforward, simple design would be a better choice, serving to convey the seriousness of the topic and the straightforward intention of the product.

Now consider a weather app. There are lots of them out there already. The weather reports presented via various media are very familiar to most people. It’s a commodity product, so differentiation through style may be possible as well as strategically desirable.

It would be safer to add a new personality or twist to a familiar domain like weather, as long as the novel personality will resonate with the intended audience.

Correct Action, Wrong Application
The ability to make swipe gestures on touch screens is a good example of a novel or clever product feature. The idea of dragging a map from side to side or up and down with your finger is totally intuitive. You do it once and understand it completely. That sort of design feels like no design at all--it just feels inevitable. Those moments are when a design is most effective. However, that swipe gesture does not translate to every application feature. It would be confusing to assume that a user would intuit that she should swipe her finger to the left to stop a file from loading, for instance. In that context, the swipe doesn’t match up with any previous user experience.

Problems arise when interface designs:

• Look like they should behave one way, but behave in another way.
• Are so new that they create more work than would a more standard interface.
• Become difficult to explain with language. (Imagine a friend trying to tell another friend how to use your product but being unable to describe it.)
• Solve for every single possible thing someone could want to do, at the expense of doing any simple action well.
• Rely on unclear symbols or text.

For example, some time ago at Etsy, we were building a feature that would allow members to connect with one another by following another user’s interests and activities on the site. This relationship would enable users to view items that another user liked, along with all of her activity. The language and the conceptual framework for describing those features came down to two possible directions:

• We could name it for the action: Following. You would be a follower of other people whose taste interested you, and you would have a following of people interested in your taste.
• We could explain what you would see or create, and call the result Circles. (This idea predated Google’s product with a similar name.) You could place someone in your circle, or other people could place you in their circles. The action was “to circle.”

We ended up launching a product that we called Circles, and with that name, it turned out to be quite confusing. We should have focused on the core activity--following--with which people were already very familiar.

We tried, unsuccessfully, to change people’s mental model. The distinctiveness that we were trying to create by using a unique feature name was already present in our product: that is, Etsy content is unique, and giving a feature a unique name may actually prevent a user from getting to that unique content. Software that allows you to connect with other people is important, but it is not unique. Following is what happens. We just needed to accept that. Eventually, we renamed the feature and the actions associated with it.

Turning On Your Filter

The designer’s role is to reduce a product design solution to an idea that’s as familiar and understandable as it can possibly be and still ensure that the product works as intended. Your goal should be to make sure that your design is usable and, therefore, is used by its intended audience. Products shouldn’t be epically creative, or try to break perceptions, or ask a user to consider a whole world of new.

Your usability filter should be turned way up as you design. Every design choice you make should be viewed through that strict filter. Does this choice help the user? Does that choice improve her experience? Does it throw elements in her path that waste time and energy? (If so, the feature also wastes your time and energy.) Stay focused on your primary intent.

Sometimes the very best design answer is no design answer at all. Have you ever worked with a writer on a project and, when you were done, felt that the project had too much text? That’s because writers tend to solve problems with words.

Designers are inclined to do the same. They tend to solve problems by over-designing features. It takes a selfless, critical eye to avoid over-designing your product. Just let it be what it wants to be.

Obviously, you shouldn’t settle for bad typography or poor design. But if you are designing a screen that offers the user three choices and then expects them to click a Submit button, you needn’t create a completely new design for this common activity. Start by designing what is already familiar to the user (a picture of that scenario probably popped into your mind as I described it), and before you try any other design solution, see if the standard solution will work for your product. In other words, un-design the experience before you design it.

Always remember that the cleverness should be in the product’s concept, not in its execution.

Backward Satisfaction

But what about creative satisfaction and the joy of being innovative? When you’re designing products for the Web, a lot of the pleasure you will receive will be in the form of the reverse satisfaction that comes when a product is successful and hordes of people use it. For me, it is exciting to see people successfully using a dashboard that I designed, for example, and I’m proud of how well it works. We become more satisfied with our design choices as the product matures and as everyone--users and designer alike--gets to know it better.

The creative joy isn’t in the cleverness of the product; it’s in the use of the product.

Such feedback doesn’t occur in just one moment. It continues throughout the product’s flow. Web products are never done, so nothing is precious and everything is subject to change. This constant need for change means that we are always getting new feed- back, performing new testing, and getting opportunities to devise new, creative ideas.

There is a massive body of work that you and your collaborators build when designing and executing Web products. You make something and test it and throw it away and build it again. Part of your ongoing satisfaction will also come from your cumulative learning.

Is Clever Ever Good?

When all of the nuts and bolts that execute the design are in place, and when everything is operating properly, then you might consider adding an element that feels clever, or fun, or different, or whatever you would like to call it. For that feature to be effective, though, your user shouldn’t even notice it. It has to support the intent of the product, not battle with it for attention.

From time to time, a novel interaction (which also serves the product’s intent) may inspire an entire class of other products. The initial learning curve may be overcome by many users because the ultimate utility of the interaction is sound.

Randy J. Hunt is Etsy's Creative Director and author ofProduct Design for the Web, available on Amazon now. This was an exclusive chapter adapted from the book. Buy it here.

[Illustrations: Courtesy of Randy J. Hunt]

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17 Comments

  • Su T Fitterman

    My first creative director gave me a great piece of advice I've never forgotten: "If you can't be clever, be clear."

  • Jason Pelker

    "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug covers all this in spades. He's publishing a third edition soon, too.

    I highly recommend the book. Many designers consider it their UX bible.

  • Nasos Kouroupis

    Although you are trying to reach to a valid point, never forget that the pattern or schemes, a pattern and so on that you are referring to, are not standardised yet. Of course is not a nice things for users to find different patterns on different apps, but again nothing has been standardised yet, so being clever sometimes moves things forward.

  • Dave Kaufman - Techlife

    We have a mildly successful Android app, about 400K downloads. It stings every time I see a person who's unhappy with the design because it is so straightforward or the colors are horrible. But over time we have come to realize the fact it is pretty simple to use and not fancy is the reason we have a loyal following who request more features than design changes. In other words:

    Think about customer service. Do you want more users helping build a better product or more users complaining about design and not helping make the product better?

  • Malone

    "...This relationship would enable users to view items that another user liked, along with all of her activity." Are all Esty users female?

  • simonv3

    What's remarkable here is that you probably wouldn't have pointed this out if that "her" had been a "he". Because that's the norm.

  • heygirlhey

    And all creatives are men apparently.

    "It’s natural when a creative person wants to invent something new. But what he can miss in that inventive moment is the opportunity to build on the knowledge that users already have."

  • Catt Small

    I wanted to say the same thing. it's so weird how they unnecessarily gendered these things, and what they chose to add genders to. Women shop, men invent? Thanks.

  • dimber

    An article on hack design and hack testing without telling users would've been a much more interesting article from an Etsy representative. By the way, the illustrations used here look very much like Carl Richard's on behaviorgap, is that a coincidence?

  • halfninedesign

    I think UI vs UX is going to be a long debate given our interaction with computer, machines and robots is increasing. The main intent is to communicate or control. Communication is easy if speech command instructions and logic are 100%. Control is another beast. How we use an interface to access information should be driven by what content the user maybe dealing with not just the intent in accessing the information. Definitely lots to think about.

  • Simon Cohen

    I wish Apple had followed this advice more closely in choosing some of the UI elements for iOS 7. Even though the flower icon never really said "photos" to me, it was better than the weird colour-kaleidoscope of petals they chose for the flat-design version. Any time a UI makes me spend time thinking about the UI, and not the task, it drives me nuts.

  • Carolyn Lee

    This drove me nuts for a while too, but I learned to accept it, haha.

    I think in particular, the 'Photos' icon for any OS is difficult. I've seen a sunflower (Apple's), a lily (Android's Gallery), rainbow pinwheels and the new multi color abstract flower for iOS7. None of them quite say "Photos" but I can't really think of a better representation...

    These phones are shipped all over the world, so it has to be culturally broad. And it can't be mistaken for something else. Like, for example, a photo album can be recognized as a "Books" app. Also, photo albums vary from culture to culture and era to era.

    A photo frame might be a bit vague since it is just an empty rectangle. If you did put a 'photo' in the frame, what would it be?

    Can't put a camera because you don't want to mistake it for the camera app...

    What else could be a good representation of a collection of photos? I couldn't think of one, so I accepted the flower, lol.

  • Simon Cohen

    My stock answer would be to use a photo-pile of polaroid-like photos, but Apple chose to use that imagery for both the photo booth and iPhoto app icons. Which raises another beef I have with flat design: When you strip away depth and photo-realism from a UI, you're left with a much narrower set of visual tools to convey what you mean. The previous icons for both Photo Booth and iPhoto were far more evocative and easy to process at-a-glance than their current flat versions. At least, they were for me and my western-centric view of the world ;-)

  • Richard Ballermann

    You said it. I think this is a good indication of how the modern understanding of a symbol to communicate "what something does" will largely be defined by the abstract symbol created by the company who's device you decide to buy.

  • MitchellCallahan

    Windows Phone I think gets it across pretty well. You could argue it assumes the user understands that the frame is referring to a polaroid instant film strip, which is largely a western culture icon. But at the surface it's a camera inside a frame, and that's what a photograph is, a frame and a camera. Especially considering that the camera app is the exact same icon of a camera but without the frame and slightly larger.

  • Joseph Szala

    Well put and well written. Form always follows function. Although that's an architecture maxim, it holds true throughout all design. If it's not usable, who cares how "cool" the features are?