Does UX matter more than creativity?

On this week’s Unfinished Business podcast Andrew Clarke talked to Laura Kalbag about how web design has changed and how he felt “alienated and uncomfortable” at the recent Net Awards show. He explained that this experience has helped him to clarify his thoughts about something which has been bothering him for a while:

I came from a background where the web was another medium to communicate. Sure, people say ‘the web isn’t print’ but to me the web was another way to channel creative ideas in the same way that magazines were, in the same way that posters are, in the same way that graphic design can be used. … what’s missing from the conversations is that Don Draper-ness; it’s that ‘why do I lust after this thing?’ … What is the story behind the brand? What is it that’s getting me excited about this? Why would I buy B&W headphones as opposed to Beats headphones?

I completely understand the sentiment here. Don Draper works his magic and turns a mundane, ‘commodity’ product into into a must have item. This is exciting work! I trained as a graphic designer and learnt the importance of the Big Idea. We were taught that a skilled designer could unearth connections that other people couldn’t see, things which would differentiate the products we worked on. Hitting on that magic creative idea is like finding buried treasure and it can make a huge difference to whether a company and their products become a success or not.

Creative design is not always as truthful as UX

But here’s where I start to feel uncomfortable; slick design and an inspired sales proposition can be more effective at hiding flaws than revealing strengths. A designer I know once told me a story about some work he did for a financial advisor. The logo was designed, the business cards and leaflet were printed and everything looked great! So much so that the financial advisor quickly started convincing people to sink their money into various investment schemes. When the police contacted my designer friend in connection with their fraud investigation they said “The problem is the work you did for him was too good. It made him look legitimate.” The financial advisor had disappeared and so had the money people had been investing. That exciting ‘creative’ design work had helped a criminal to convince people he was something which in reality he was not.

When design is all about Big Ideas it can too easily turn into a problem solving exercise which is more about the designer than the client, the product or the end user. It becomes a game in which talented creative thinkers turn straw into gold. That’s not always the case but my point is that great looking design is really only an indicator of a talented visual designer, rather than a great product or service. I think this explains why I’ve moved more and more towards user experience design over the past few years. By definition you can’t have a terrible product with great UX.

You want to be like Don?

Real life Don Drapers have the power to influence buying decisions and push us towards good products we’d otherwise miss. They can also trick us into buying substandard or even dangerous products. I believe that all designers have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the products (and people) they’re helping to promote are what they claim to be. The human brain evolved to include many cognitive biases which lead us to make stupid decisions like smoking because it’s associated with something or someone we like. The design and advertising world knows and often exploits this. There’s compelling evidence linking Mad Men’s run with a huge surge in the sale of Lucky Strike cigarettes to a new young audience. Big Ideas are exciting but on balance I feel they often benefit clients and designers far more than they do consumers. When selling a product off the back of great user experience you can’t hide the flaws because the sales proposition is the product.

So does UX matter more than creativity? I’m honestly not sure. Great user experience leads to a product which people will enjoy using, but great creative design can be the deciding factor in whether they even try the product in the first place. I think that there’s room for both approaches but the UX should, in my opinion, be the foundation. After research, testing and analysis have lead to a solid product we can then add some creative thinking to the mix. I believe that this way of working leads to highly desirable products and services which actually fulfil their promise. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing more emphasis being placed on UX than on the creative side of web design right now; on some level we might know that as an industry we need to get the user experience right first—and we’re sadly still a long way from doing that much of the time. Maybe once UX is really seen as an essential part of the process we can get back to the Big Ideas.