Familiar UX Patterns Are Key to Success in Disruptive Innovation

October 25, 2016

I heard a radio ad this morning for an agency that will help to ‘disrupt your market.’ Various forms of the term ‘disruption’ have been a steady buzz in the business and technology worlds in recent years – we hear and read about it constantly.

The term ‘disruptive innovation’ (initially ‘disruptive technologies’) was coined by Clayton Christensen back in the mid-90’s.

Since then, the concept has changed our world with many examples, such as: Craigslist upending the newspaper industry; digital cameras replacing the need for film processing; smartphones replacing a slew of necessities including calculators, alarm clocks and landline telephones.

Everyone Wants to Be Disruptive

It’s exciting and fascinating to imagine new ways of doing the same old stuff. And everyone acknowledges the glamour of being known as a disruptor. It’s why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are household names about whom movies are made.

Leaders within companies can presumably make a bigger splash with disruption than by maintaining the status quo – especially in the ever-evolving web space.

But rarely does the kind of industry-shocking disruption we admire come from within departments of established, large organizations. It usually comes from the most unexpected places.

Nonetheless, at Crux Collaborative, we’ve noticed an increasing desire from our clients to do something that gets noticed and is perceived as disruption. This can be a double-edged sword.

Collaborating Within ‘Disruption or Bust’

Collaboration is what we do, and it always involves open exploration of new ways to think about your business. But a ‘disruption or bust’ mindset can be detrimental to the design process.

Our team brings our collective experience to the process in collaboration—including findings and observations we’ve acquired over almost two decades of creating and testing user experiences.

Certain basic truths about human behavior and user-centered design do not and will not change. They provide the basis for a great many rules we use in user experience design. Disruption can include some bending of these rules, but it should not be an exercise in ignoring them.

We’ve had clients who insisted on upending typical design and usability conventions in the quest for a disruptive innovation. This way of thinking is almost sure to backfire. Simply discarding the ‘old way’ in favor of a ‘new way’ does not accomplish anything on its own – and it can become a usability black hole if your customers cannot comprehend or use the new solution.

Humans are habit-driven and use patterns to understand the world. Your design should leverage existing patterns, if possible.

Forcing your users to learn new habits will likely be met with resistance since it’s human nature to look for the easiest path.

Humans and Habitual Behavior

People form habits by repeating a process, following a cue-routine-reward cycle. The cue is the visual. The routine is the action. And the reward is the satisfaction of what you were craving.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, habits make survival simpler by allowing us to make decisions almost automatically, freeing our brain to think about other things as we perform routine tasks. Our brain tends to find familiar, repeatable behaviors out of a sense of security.”
Ray Lumpp

A common illustrative example is backing out of the driveway. Our brain is highly engaged in each part of the process in the beginning. But after the process becomes habitual, our minds go into a sort of auto-pilot (cue-routine-reward) mode with lower brain activity. This has been proven in mice.

Web Users’ Established Habits

When it comes to your users, they’ve formed habits using the web. You may desire to get rid of an accepted type of solution, but be sure to align your expectations with the realities of human behavior.

Let’s take the display of complex data in a basic area chart, as an example. You may convince yourself that a brand new way of displaying the data is just what users and internal stakeholders want. Everyone in your organization is tired of the same old, boring chart that you’ve used for years – and it’s a perfect opportunity for a disruptive innovation.

But, the truth is, your users probably don’t really care if the chart is boring to you. They bring a set of habit-driven behaviors to understand what a chart is (the cue), how to interact with it (the routine), and learn the details they care about (the reward).

Know What You’re Getting Into

Changing the display is possible, but it will be more likely to succeed if you leverage an existing habitual behavior. If you decide, instead, to introduce a new and unproven approach, your users will be forced to learn it and more likely to abandon or not understand it. In our example, lets’s say you decide to replace the chart with a fancy spinning wheel of data. Will your users want to learn it? Will they understand it? Perhaps. But it may take several rounds of iteration and testing just to find out.

A more attainable approach could be to re-imagine or improve upon the existing chart. Make the routine easier. Enhance the reward. Consider the opportunity to leverage the user’s habitual behavior to improve their experience. This might not be as glamorous, but it’s more likely to succeed.

If you decide to move forward with a disruptive innovation, you should expect to face significant turbulence – prepare for and be open to failure. True disruptors recognize that failure is a substantial part of the process. If you’re looking for somebody to help you determine if you’ve discovered the next industry-changing innovation or just created an unusable mess – contact us and we can figure it out together.

By Tony Johnson
Senior Front-end Developer

Tony has spent well over a decade building interactive applications. He collaborates in the full life cycle of projects – bringing a unique blend of technical savvy, creativity and strategic thinking to our user experience consulting services.

View Tony's Bio


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