Could tools limit innovation?

Elton Billings  

December 18, 2006

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As technologies and interaction models change, we may need to invent or find new tools in order to create user experiences that take full advantage of advancing capabilities and altered behaviors.

At Extractable, we’ve recently begun using Axure RP to build wireframes, task flows, and prototypes. So far, it has shown itself to be very useful in capturing and communicating ideas about interfaces and task flows. While I find this particular application handy and effective, I can’t help but wonder if we may be rapidly reaching a point at which our vision and innovation are limited by the range of tools and techniques at our disposal.

It’s pretty obvious that it’s impossible to build a Honda Civic using nothing but a stone axe. But would it have been possible to build the Model T without an assembly line? Perhaps. But without the assembly line, I doubt the Model T could have been produced at such quantity and at a price that made it affordable for a fairly broad segment of the population. It was the technique that made the difference.

Similarly, certain methods of treating diseases would have been very difficult to conceive without the invention of the microscope. The ability to view cell level organisms opened the door for new ways of thinking about the causes of various illnesses.

Clearly, availability of the right tools and techniques is a major factor in innovation.

Over time, practitioners of user experience design (read: IA, HCI, UX, Usability, etc., etc….) have developed and refined a set of tools which have served fairly well to this point. Wireframes, task flow diagrams, card sorts, heuristic evaluations, low-fidelity prototypes, task testing, and many other tools have proven useful in building better user experiences. The techniques for discovery and exploration, such as contextual inquiries and personas, have also been of great value as we chart our course through designs, redesigns, updates, and improvements.

But while these tools and techniques can be very useful, dependence on them may also prove to be a factor that limits our vision and hampers our ability to define and communicate truly innovative ideas in our areas of practice.

I think we may already be experiencing a bit of this type of limitation. For example, we can define an application through a functional spec that includes some wireframes and other information, and then pass it on for coding and implementation. Likewise, we can build site maps, page layouts and other artifacts to guide the creation of a web site and its pages. But what tools are appropriate when a page may be nothing more than a collection of independently operating content areas and feeds? What if site navigation becomes meaningless? How do we properly define applications that may morph at any point in the interaction to perform a completely different function, in a different context?

I suppose for now, we can stick with the tried and true methods. After all, one can break down a page into component areas and express each of those in some fashion. A site map that includes only one page is a possibility, even if a bit odd. And applications that change their functionality can be expressed as a semi-independent set of smaller applications.

Still, I can’t help but feel as if we sometimes may be sailing around using a spyglass to look for pirate treasure, when anyone possessing snorkeling gear could plainly see that it lies on the ocean floor beneath us. (OK, only in somewhat shallow water. Few metaphors are perfect.)

I get this feeling when I look at such sites as housingmaps.com, a mash-up of Google Maps and Craig’s List apartment listings. What if I were asked to redesign the experience of the site to increase its value to users? Certainly, I could work on the page layouts, the interaction flow, and other factors in a fairly routine way. But what if, in doing so, I completely miss something simple in the model that would have improved the site usefulness fivefold? After all, this site is already a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. What if my analysis failed to uncover a magnificent possible improvement in the interaction model, simply because I have no tools capable of revealing some detail, much less measuring its overall impact?

And how do sites such as Flickr get to the next level? I mean defining a good, usable way to upload and tag photos, and other ways to find photos is pretty straightforward but not all that challenging. But there is a layer beneath these simple interfaces that is of great value. How do we describe what goes on with tags? How do we diagram the idea that 5000 other people see one of your tags and adopt it, leading to a huge spike in its usage? Does it even matter? What if we try to model the behavior of a tag cloud and try to identify cause and affect relationships with user actions or external factors? What if the relationships were obvious, if only we had the right tool to see them?

So does this mean we are paralyzed until new tools can be found? Absolutely not. Presently available tools and techniques are still useful and serve well in a variety of situations. But it is certainly time to explore and develop ideas that lead to new ways to discover, analyze, plan, and communicate. Otherwise we may one day find ourselves ill-prepared to fully understand the implications of new capabilities and altered behaviors. We might, spyglasses at the ready, sail right over the gold.