Creativity vs. Usability: creating a well-balanced design

Creativity is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary (2020) as “the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas”. It is what sets you apart as a designer, and it is a part of your personality that you express through your designs. However, if you’re relying on your creativity only, it might get in the way of how the user experiences your design. Here’s why.

Design like a user

As you grow as a designer, you learn that design should not only please the eye of the beholder, but also make said beholder complete their task on your website without complications. Something I always keep in mind is the following: “think like a user, but don’t make the user think”. But what can you do to make your design easy to understand for the user?

Simplicity is key

First of all, you have to keep it simple. Google (2012) found that websites that are ‘visually complex’ are rated as less pleasant compared to websites that have a simple design. Visually complex websites are often chaotic, too colorful, or too unorganized. So, what can you do to make your website look simpler? A good example of low-complexity design is PayPal’s app. It looks clean, there is not too much information for the user to process and the user can immediately tell which button does what. There is not much thinking involved when it comes to completing tasks on PayPal’s app, and that is exactly what you should want for your design too.

Source: Apple Appstore https://apps.apple.com/us/app/paypal-mobile-cash/id283646709

Prototypicality

In its 2012 study, Google also mentioned that users have a preference for “highly prototypical” websites. But what does this mean? Walker (2020) said the following:

“Prototypicality is the basic mental image your brain creates to categorize everything you interact with”. 

This means that your brain has an idea of what specific categories of websites should look and feel like (Walker, 2020). So, designing a website based on the idea people have of what certain websites should look like will definitely help. You can do this by selecting a few best practices based on what kind of website you want to design and create a wireframe with elements that all your best practices have in common.

Creativity with a purpose

Doing this does not mean that you lack originality – you’re simply improving your design based on your user’s expectations. Your design will feel familiar to the users, which results in making their lives easier by not wasting their mental effort (Walker, 2020).

This means that your creativity is limited, but also needs to have a purpose. You should be able to validate every element about your design, and when you doubt if an element has a purpose, consider removing or replacing it.

Visual design

Once you know what your design is going to look like and have the most important elements down, the fun part begins. There’s a lot of aspects you can unleash your creativity onto:

  • Color
    • You can get out of your comfort zone and try different color combinations.
  • Fonts
    • Play with font sizes and mix and match different fonts.
  • Hierarchy
    • Make the most important elements of your design larger in comparison to less important elements.
  • Contrast
    • Combine contrasting colors using, shapes or fonts.
  • Lines
  • Shapes
  • Patterns
  • Textures
  • Illustrations
    • Design your own illustrations or pick images that suit your design.

Furthermore, you can try to find creative solutions to problems that users might come across in your design. It should be easy for users to make a decision or complete a (micro-)interaction.

Disturbed balance

If the balance between creativity and usability is disturbed, it causes the user to likely experience issues. According to Whitfield (2019) being creative just to be creative can bring down the user experience, while creative solutions to user problems can make this experience better. Whitfield (2019) lists the following basic user experience principles:

  • What are the user’s motivations?
  • What is the user looking for in their experience?
  • What elements would enhance the user’s experience?

Ask yourself these questions if you ever doubt if your design is well-balanced. Another tool to help you center your design to the users wishes is Peter Morville’s user experience honeycomb:

Source: Peter Morville

Morville’s honeycomb explains the different elements of a user’s experience. These elements are important to keep in mind while designing and will help you make the most out of a user’s experience on your site.

In the end it all comes down to putting the user first. You can 100% be creative when designing websites, but just keep in mind that your creativity must serve a purpose in order to not disturb the balance between creativity and usability.

Source of header image: Ben Kolde on Unsplash

Sources:

Cambridge Dictionary. (2020, 4 november). creativity definition: 1. the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas: 2. the ability to produce or use…. Learn more. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/creativity

Google. (2012, augustus). The role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites: Working towards understanding aesthetic judgments. http://static.googleusercontent.com/media/research.google.com/en/us/pubs/archive/38315.pdf

Tomal, R. (2018, 18 januari). How Creativity Can Kill a Good Website Design. Rafal Tomal. https://rafaltomal.com/creativity-can-kill-design/

Walker, T. (2020, 25 september). Why Simple Website Designs Are Scientifically Better. CXL. https://cxl.com/blog/why-simple-websites-are-scientifically-better/

Whitfield, D. (2019, 15 november). Balancing User Experience and Creativity in Design. CMSWire.com. https://www.cmswire.com/customer-experience/balancing-user-experience-and-creativity-in-design/

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