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Design, Creativity, and the IBM Quote

When you need to take the leap

Web and app design thinking today thwarts innovation. We are so enamored with and driven by best practices, methodologies and data-driven decision-making that we’ve left no room to try something that no data, no particular approach, no set of guidelines will ever reveal.

Now look, I get why we do this. Leaning on familiarity and convention is incredibly effective. People are good at what they already know and we should lean on their deeply-rooted skills and habits. Why confuse people with some weird new interaction that nobody’s ever seen before?

Here’s why: when we do stumble upon a new interaction that feels right and takes hold, it expands the vocabulary instantly — providing a new capability — and possibly a new paradigm — that wasn’t there before. A true invention.

One example of a true interaction invention is pull to refresh (“PTR”). Loren Brichter, the original developer behind Tweetie, the iOS Twitter client that eventually became the official Twitter client, decided to try something outlandishly new. People refresh Twitter all day long and Loren recognized that gestures rather than a specific targeted region tap would be far more effective.

So instead of a button he implemented this new gesture that required you to drag the list of tweets downward such that a spring-action effect kicked in that triggered a refresh. It was new, immediately intuitive and oddly satisfying. Still, to throw out this strange new gesture was undoubtedly a risk. Here’s a nice example of PTR in action:

Here’s a nice example of PTR from Evan Dinsmore on Dribbble.

Today, PTR is everywhere. Email clients, news apps, just about anything that has a list that updates has PTR. In fact, Apple went ahead and made it a part of the toolkit every developer gets for building iOS apps.

User research and A/B testing would never produce a PTR. There really was no way to validate or ensure its success unless you invented it and went back out into the world and tested it. It’s a leap. A bold daring leap that carved out a meaningful new convention that everyone enjoys today.

Where’s the next Pull-To-Refresh?

It’s easy to complain about lack of innovation in an OpEd piece. It’s a lot harder to actually pull off the next PTR. So what does it take? Well, I’d argue that some creative ideas are out there, they just don’t get to see the light of day. Let’s dig into why that is:

The bigger the company, the harder it is to innovate

PTR materialized while Loren was alone (or somewhat alone, not really sure) while developing Tweetie, an independent third party Twitter client. Eventually, Twitter acquired Tweetie and re-labeled it the official Twitter for iOS app.

Now who knows where an alternate history would’ve taken us, but it’s fairly safe to say a feature as bold as PTR wouldn’t have made it through the probably rigorous vetting process within a large(-ish at that time) company like Twitter. There’s simply too much at stake. Imagine a renegade designer at Facebook trying something nutty with the Facebook mobile app experience? It simply could not and would not happen today.

You can’t get fired for making a data-driven bet

There’s that awful saying that just makes me sad: nobody’s been fired for choosing IBM. The implication is simple: you can’t get in trouble for making a safe bet.

This is just basic human nature (and human survival) at work. If you advocate a strategy that is backed by hard data — user research, A/B testing, competitive analysis, whatever — if it flops nobody can sit you down and ask you what the hell you were thinking.

Your internal campaign to get something interesting to happen

So you’ve got a crazy idea. You’ve prototyped it and your colleagues like what they see. It feels right. You begin sharing it with others. You widen the circle more and more…and you eventually get the meeting you’ve been waiting for. A “key stakeholder” is about to witness your new invention.

It goes OK. She agrees to show it to others at her level and maybe above.

As you continue to climb up the hill to true salvation, it gets steeper and steeper. That’s because the bets for the stakeholder across from you get bigger and bigger.

“Have you validated this?”

And it stops there.

I thought a lot about Facebook as I wrote this so I’ll close with a Mark Zuckerberg quote:

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. — Mark Zuckerberg


Rich Ziade is a co-founder of Postlight.