Innovation and user experience – a balancing act between novelty and familiarity

by Martin Rosenmejer on 24 January 2011

Innovation is a popular term these years often used to describe successful business models.  For end-products the term is closely connected to ‘novelty’, ‘renewal’ and ‘change’, whereas from a process perspective, innovation is often associated with creative processes for idea generation, which can occur on multiple levels in organisations.

As a user experience consultant, I’m involved in the process of developing digital products (websites, mobile apps, applications etc.), and both the process and end-product characteristics of innovation arehighly relevant.

blog-postEarly in the development process, we spend timebrainstorming to generate ideas for a concept and later choosing the best ideas to continue working on. On a product and design level, we’re constantly looking for improved ways of navigating new functionalities and features to inject novelty into the user experience.

But products can also be so new and radical to the users that they’re difficult to use and provide no value to the users. Therefore, novelty and familiarity are both key components of a successful innovative product – also within user experience. Whereas, novelty generates the excitement, a degree of familiarity is essential for the learnability of the product for the user.

On average users spend about 30 seconds on the homepage before deciding whether to look more into the site or go elsewhere. As most users don’t spend time trying to learn how a website works, familiar design elements ensure that users know how to use the site and concurrently avoid the users losing interest and leaving the site.  On the other hand, building in new design, can make the users go ‘wow, I like that!’ instead of just having the ‘getting the stuff done’ attitude. The ‘wow’ attitude is essential for user retention – making the users come back to the site again and again.

Therefore, the right blend of novelty and familiarity is key, but in order to get the right balance a crucial question to ask is – who are we designing for? Thus, novelty and familiarity don’t mean the same to all users. An ‘expert user’ has other expectations to a design and their need for familiarity differs from a less experienced user. Therefore, it’s often beneficial to conduct user research before starting the actual development process in order to gain insight in the user behaviour and make sure the design is aligned with the mental models of the users.

However, user research is not only important in the early stages of the development process. An iterative development process with regular user testing helps accommodating usability issues but also taking the user experience to the next level; or in other words – managing the critical balancing act between novelty and familiarity.

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