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Jul 2010

6 Rules to Balance Science and Art in UX Design

In industrial design projects, including everything from improving the user experience of an interactive television system to performing open-ended user research for an upcoming product, designers are presented with the challenge of synthesizing best practices and contextual analysis into an effective human-computer interface.  I’ve encountered a significant amount of confusion with respect to the priority of quantitative and qualitative information.  The fact is, commercial design is a discipline which will forever walk the line between the subjective and objective.  This raises a major question:

How do we know when to rely on statistics and when to trust our creative instincts?


The scientific approach to solving a problem suggests hypothesizing a solution based on previous work, testing it experimentally, and reporting results.  Through such theory and experimentation, we can draw conclusions which move us closer to understanding and solving real problems.  And so goes the science of user experience design.  Based on previous experience, best practices, experimental evidence, I can suggest a design solution which will likely optimize the interface between a certain technology and its users.  Performing usability tests allows me to validate my suggested interface and tweak the system, creating a predictably usable interface.  Simple, right?


What’s missing from this description is the artistic.  The fact of the matter is that human-computer interaction design can benefit substantially from a creative approach.  When our clients want systems which engage, attract and achieve a sense of flow, we need to move beyond the objective, incremental scientific process.  The artistic approach represents an increase in risk but also potential reward (especially in a growing, competitive industry).  By constantly evolving our art-form through our experience with innovative products on various projects in various contexts, we improve our ability to build designs which communicate with users; the deeper our insight into the human experience, the more depth we can provide in artful, “big picture,” interactive solutions.

So what’s the correct answer?  When should we trust the numbers, and when should we take creative risks?  While each project needs its own tailored approach, every designer must be aware that both methods are interrelated.  Their relationship is not simple, but I can certainly provide some insight directly from my experience researching, designing and testing human-computer interfaces.


1.  A completely objective and numeric approach is a safe bet when time and budget are constrained.  In a quick project which doesn’t have time for abstract design methods and adequate user testing, a more objective approach is typically a good way to minimize risk and get a quick job done with minimal internal controversy.

2.  With a client who is willing to take risks for reward, a completely objective and numeric approach is a missed opportunity.  While interface usability can be improved with an objective scientific approach, the other elements of the user experience tend to be neglected.  Where possible, attempting to inject creative and innovative approaches where possible can help increase overall flow, mental modeling, engagement, hedonic factors (fun), and user satisfaction.  In a thriving industry, innovative solutions can be a major competitive edge.

3.  A completely improvised creative approach is never a good idea.  It may work occasionally for graphic and visual design, but principles and existing work in human psychology and industrial design allow us to avoid blindly hoping that our users will react well.  There is always a place for science, even in the most creative approaches.

4.  Facts not only predict user behaviour, but they also inspire creative design solutions.  Facts about how users interact with a system tend to logically suggest a solution.  For instance, the fact that “90% of users didn’t notice the button” would suggest that this button needs to be bigger and more prominent.  However, when taking all problems into account, it becomes clear that not everything on the screen can be prominent; we can’t simply enlarge every button.  A few behavioural facts may lead designers’ instincts to a deeper level.  It is here where the experienced designer’s creative approach can solve many problems at once with a more elegant design solution.

5.  The more testing you’ve planned, the more creative risk you can afford to take.  If your project has several iterative tests planned, you should inform your design team that innovation is expected.  Lateral and less-directed design methods like parallel prototyping and group workshops can lead to innovative and groundbreaking solutions which not only optimize the usability of the interface, but generate an engaging and attractive user experience which gets people talking.  Sure, there will be failed tests and wrong steps, but without experimenting, how can you possibly expect to innovate?

6.  Fix edge-cases when they don’t affect more common use cases.  When testing a design with many users, if a very small minority of users has trouble with a certain element, it may seem statistically irrelevant.  However, if such problems seem repairable without affecting other users, they’re still worth fixing.  Think about it, if only 1 out of 10 test participants have trouble with an element, the problem could either be negligible or it may translate to 10% of all your users, or maybe even more!  If you’ve identified a problem that’s easy to fix and doesn’t harm the experience of other users, why take the risk?

Hope this helps you walk the line!

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