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Creativity, Self Expression & Trade-offs: Designing “Simple” or “Flexible” Tools?

Pick someone you know fairly well that you think of as someone who is not creative.

Or at least not in the most classic sense.

Think about them for a little while more. Are they really not creative or do you just happen to define creativity as something different than they would? Did they have to show their creativity to you to realize they’re actually creative? Should it be loud? Should they want to express it to the entire world for them to be a creative person? Does it have to be colorful or tasteful?

You can find many meanings of creativity. The one I always liked was “the act of creation”. If I had to define it more thoroughly, it would be “the act of creation seen from the eyes of the creator”. People fight over the definition of creativity because they are trying to define it for someone else. That’s the issue. That part is irrelevant. It discounts the most pure part of the entire mix which is Part 4 (see below).

I want to break apart creativity as we generally define it into a few components.

Part 1: Paradigm shift in thinking

Part 2: Mixing variables within the confines of  ”good taste” or something that “works”

Part 3: Learning how to optimize the tool you use to produce

Part 4: Your expression / random mix of all your experiences / sole / self?

Let’s go into each part one by one though.

Part 4 is you. Your expression but the naked version of it. The unprocessed, unfiltered component of it. This part is often dismissed as just a remix of other people’s ideas when you see it in the creation. That might be true but there is still a small layer of you in there. When that part gets thrown into the mix, in aggregate it creates something completely different. Stop thinking about each part and focus on the outcome. If you’re fixated on the fact that 99% of it is other people’s ideas, you should just stop reading this now. Your issue comes from discounting the process of idea evolution.

Part 3 is mostly technology. The camera vs the iPhone’s camera app vs Instagram would be the perfect way to think of it. But this part has 2 components to it… you have the tool itself & the time + effort it takes to learn how to optimize it. This is the part that’s moving really fast and we as software designers have the most influence over.

Part 2 reflects how the more you view work from a certain genre of creation that is considered great, the more you’re likely to pick on its patterns, its boundaries and maybe even some of its distinguishing factors. This one gets dismissed as just imitation most of the time because the distinguishing parts stand out the most to both the creator and the viewers. They are not really paying attention to the micro creative decisions. They are too focused on trying to dismiss it. This part is very interesting because it starts to get much more complex if you think about utility-based creative decisions vs pure expressive ones vs ones that try to accomplish both. For the purpose of this article, you can think of it as trying to accomplish both.

Part 1 is where the new kids and the “true artists” divide. This is the part where you only land by a huge volume of work, pure genius, a lucky mistake, or a long understanding of the fundamentals of your genre. Ironically, this part has the most creativity as a percentage of the total but it also makes it that much harder to recognize.

So what’s special about each one?

My personal belief is that you always have Part 4 and that’s really at the core of my later arguments. Part 4 is really all you need. The other parts are up to us as tool designers to optimize for users.

Part 1 is more of the task for language and platform designers. Whereas what I’m focusing on here are tools that are not meant for innovation with that level of flexibility.

Part 2 + 3 + 4 are what we’re seeing with what people call our “remix” culture.

Ok, so how does all of this relate back to software design? Part 2 and 4 are the user inputs. Part 3 is your tool.

How does this tie back into software design?

In our field, we tend to listen to the people who have the most influence. So if someone says design software with less choices, everyone retweets and people repeat it. If someone says your job is to reduce until you have the simplest solution, people repeat.

These are extremely irresponsible ways of spreading knowledge. Spreading a philosophy of design without explicitly expressing the assumptions under which your philosophy works. Single use case philosophies that people from thousands of use cases feel like they have to apply to their work everyday.

The issue is that software is more and more becoming about self expression than anything else. Most of the other layers of experiences are becoming the commodity. The most valuable part of any experience is when the user uses the application to express themselves. I’ll challenge you to think of any software that the user really doesn’t ultimately use your application for some form of self expression. Think of the reason why they said they like your application. They might like it because it is simple but they love it because it allows them to ultimately express themselves.

Understanding the trade-off for your users

The critical idea to introduce now is self-expression vs time spent. That’s where, as software designers, we have to make the decision of who we’re optimizing for and we have to have an idea of who this person might be.

The argument is not where choice is bad or not. That’s just a ridiculous broad stroking argument. That argument fails in most things that you yourself use every single day. Think of a place where you really need a choice that seems a bit specific to your use case. Now imagine a life without that choice. Your life isn’t any better because the choice was removed. It was better before.

The difference is that, in that particular case, you valued the trade-off in favor of the choice vs the time spent making it. You put value in that choice. In that flexibility.

You almost always use the same temperature while taking a shower… so why are there no presets? Would your life be simpler if the preset was there? Yes.

Now think of the popcorn option on your microwave. How many times does it burn the popcorn? The preset there is useless. The user needs the choice to be able to set the exact time. I remember the specific bag of popcorn that I liked took exactly 2 minutes 15 seconds to be perfect. If you removed the exact time setting from my microwave, are you making my life easier? No. You’re making it worse. You make me think of my microwave as less valuable.

Now what if the popcorn wasn’t burnt and it was just a tiny bit burnt… would I care as much? Maybe not. That’s where the balance of the trade-off is key to understand. Who am I optimizing for and how can I make their life easier? Where is their line? And do I want to land there or instead give them both routes?

There is nothing inherent about a product that defines it as something that should be designed with less choice.

What’s useful is to think of your user as something that might care about that choice or not. Would they make the trade-off with their time to spend it to make that decision or play with that feature?

If so, I’d argue that it’s your job to develop it. Develop it in the best way possible so it doesn’t tax the rest of the users who might not care about that feature. You can even make the argument that you want to focus on the other user type first. That’s fine. But what’s not ok is saying that somehow tools should always be designed with less choice. And that somehow you’re the savior for that user because you know better and you made their life better.

Think about it for a sec. Simpler – for – the user. The last part of that sentence is where we got lazy. Since it was hard to define who this person is, we’re defining them as whoever they are when it’s most convenient for us at that particular time.

So how does this tie back into the idea of creativity and who is creative?

Well, Part 3 is software. The thing that you’re designing. Part 2 is happening without you at a very fast pace. Part 4 exists in every human. My point is that there is such a thing as a micro form of creativity. One that doesn’t get called out by everyone else as something that a “creative” person made. It might be something as simple as organizing a few tabs in the workflow of the user or being able to customize the font size of an area.  Those are actually creative solutions. And the combination of how to use these solutions is very creative in the eyes of the creator.

If you want to make an application with not many options to make it “simpler”, that’s ok. You’ll probably attract a lot of people who don’t put much value in self expression within that particular part of their life. That’s ok but it doesn’t prove that there aren’t others who value self expression and want tools that imply the same.

Again, self expression can come in the form of not only expression within the form of entertainment but also for optimization of a result for yourself or others. That is still expression. We tend to categorize expression with art / dance / colors / music… open up the definition more to accommodate a more utilitarian view as well and you’ll see how many more things could qualify.

We’ve been proven over and over and over and over again that humanity is extremely creative. We are toolmakers.

When creativity is incentivized, the person is encouraged to do more of it. That is happening more and more today. When you add lowering costs, faster technology plus a long tail audience, you get an even stronger multiplier.

Micro forms of creativity happen everyday. The tools can amplify them, give them shape and even incentivize the creator. This is a new idea and it’s important to recognize when designing tools for the new generation of people.

Don’t discount their creativity and dismiss it as complexity.

In my opinion, as technologists that’s our entire reason to do what we do. Create an experience that has a progressive learning path and that encourages creativity from your users.