How Important Is It to be Different in Design?

I’ve been told all throughout my design career that being different is the key to success — both for individual level and collective level (a company, for example).

I’ve been told that it’s important to create not only a functional or delightful experience, but it’s also ultimately important to create a “signature” experience where your work becomes you, an identity. Others will try to copy your success.

For example, if you think about pull-to-refresh interaction in iOS apps, it is a signature. It was not thought by Apple or other app designers alike. Tweetie, the popular Twitter app back in 2009–2010, introduced it. Hail to Loren Brichter for that!

Other example is the Tinder-style swipe selection. Nobody ever thought of doing this in the past, and they successfully “branded” it as “Tinder-style” interaction.

However, there’s a cost to try achieve the same fame: learning curve. When you fight hard to find a non-conventional interaction, you end up introducing something that the users are not familiar to begin with. One can argue that familiarity is taught over time. “Hey, we can force them to learn!”

I think this risk would work if it actually achieves something more efficiently, like Twitter or Tinder’s case. Rather than pushing a button to refresh, the thumb is already naturally swiping up and down, and the user learns about it without any cognitive load. But, if we introduce an interaction or a UI design that is just different for the sake of being different, that’s a potentially-damaging risk. Every “signature” design should begin with user problems, never about fame or being fancy.

It’s understandable that every design team wants to be successful and ahead of their competitors, but it doesn’t mean that we should be way ahead of our users or customers. If you have a product with a user base that is creative, savvy and risk-taking, then probably it’s the way to go. But, if your customers are just regular ones seeking to accomplish certain basic tasks, then maybe start with something familiar. We can move from there.

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Reflections on digital product design, travel, food and the in-betweens. Finding my compass.

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