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PHOTO: Luis Quintero

Whether working on marketing materials, websites or apps, designers are always eager to find ways to express their creativity. But that creativity can sometimes come at the cost of user experience. Because of this, businesses are often left with the difficult decision of choosing between fun design and functional design — a dichotomy that doesn’t need to exist. User experience (UX) and creativity can coexist and complement each other, to produce better, more human experiences for users. 

Why User Experience Needs to Come First

Before we look at how designers can balance their creativity with UX, we need to look at the basics. Why should you be worried about user experience in the first place? Why can’t designer creativity come first?

In the past few years, UX design has exploded as a field. By the end of 2018, there were 20,000 open UX design jobs in the United States alone, with an expected growth of 22% over the next 10 years. 

Design is no longer seen as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a business. Design that considers the entire user journey and leverages the UX honeycomb (usable, useful, accessible, desirable, credible, findable and valuable) can boost not only customer and user happiness but also the company’s bottom line. 

In one McKinsey study, the company studied 300 public companies over a five-year period, observing 100,000 design actions and 2 million pieces of financial data. Through this, it found companies scoring higher on design quality were also performing better financially. Both revenue and returns to shareholders for these design high performers outpace industry benchmarks. 

Over the course of those five years, the top 25% of companies McKinsey studied increased revenue and total returns to shareholders much faster than the industry standard. Revenue growth was 32% higher and total returns to shareholder growth were 56% higher during the period in question. 

All of which is to say, while designers have always known the value of their work, it’s now being recognized by the C-Suite. 

Related Article: The Dangers of Designing for Only One User

What Kind of Design Deserves Investment?

McKinsey determined the high-performers using four key areas of design that had the highest impact on financial performance: 

  1. Rigorously measuring and driving design performance, the same way a company would for revenue or costs.
  2. Creating connections and removing barriers between digital, physical and service design.
  3. Making user-centric design a cross-departmental priority.
  4. Removing some of the risks from the development process by continually testing, listening and iterating with end-users.

Two of these four points are all about users and user experience and the first point deals with the product of good user experience: revenue. There’s no question that users and their experiences of your website need to come first when you’re designing. This means confusion needs to be avoided at all costs — even at the cost of certain kinds of creativity.

Related Article: User Experience Design Shouldn't Happen in Isolation

When Creativity Impedes User Experience

A few common trends in design tend to cause user experience issues — even if they’re popular among designers. These kinds of design features are more prominent, which means they’re a great way for designers to show off their skills. It also means they can become intrusive for users, leading to confusing, disruptive experiences. 

While creativity for creativity’s sake can impede user experience, creative solutions to user problems can improve user experience. But defining the difference between the two isn’t necessarily straightforward. Luckily, user experience principles can provide some clarity to distinguishing the kind of design that disturbs user experience from the kind that supports the company’s revenue and shareholders. 

Good user experience is based on a few basic principles:

  • Focus on the "why" behind an end user’s interaction with your design. What are their motivations, values and views?
  • Understand "what" users are looking for in their experience. What functionality and features do they need? 
  • Empathize with how people want to use your platform or website. What level of accessibility do they require? What aesthetics would enhance their experience?

Incorporating these principles in the design process — along with the UX honeycomb considerations — will help temper creative instincts that might otherwise lead to confusing designs. But these UX considerations do more than just temper creativity. They also offer an almost infinite and ever-changing set of problems for designers to direct their creativity into.  

In short, designing in service of a larger purpose — solving for user issues — offers an opportunity to express creativity productively. By expressing creativity in service of finding solutions for users, designers can learn to balance creativity and UX in their work. 

Related Article: Find the Gaps in Your User Experience

Better Approaches to Creativity and User Experience

As you work with your design team on balancing user experience with their own creative desires, the key belief to instill is that creativity isn’t incongruous with user-centric design. Creativity should be in service of building better experiences for users — in this context, creativity without a purpose is pointless. 

By continuously measuring the merit of your design against McKinsey’s top four indicators, the UX honeycomb and principles of UX design, you can create a design process that makes an impact. 

In giving designers the tools to produce the kind of user experiences that move the needle, you can help them grow beyond simply having an impressive-looking portfolio. When designers can demonstrate the real business value of their work — in conversions and revenue — they’ll be less inclined to include the kind of prominent features that are good in portfolios, and bad for users. 

Above all else, remember to put users first. Because design isn’t for designers; it’s for users. With a healthy balance of creativity and functionality, your design team can solve user issues and provide experiences that boost company performance long-term.