In user interface design we have a thing called design patterns, or more specifically, user interface patterns — tried and tested ways of building interface elements, or sets of elements together, that solve a given problem. User interface patterns include things like drop-down menus, search boxes, value sliders, scrollbars, progress meters, forms, and so on. These patterns have been established and evolved over time, they work, and people are used to them.
This means that when you’re developing a new product, and you’re faced with common problems, the smart thing to do is to use these established patterns. Most people will do this automatically because that’s the only way of solving those problems that they know of. The benefit is obvious: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You also know that this solution will work and your users will likely know how to use it given that it’s used everywhere else.
But should these patterns always be followed?
No. User interface patterns and conventions can, and should, be broken, provided one criterion is met: the new solution is better at its task than the one it replaces. Innovation by definition must introduce some new way of doing things, and it’s often impossible to do this without breaking the old norms.
When an interface pattern is replaced by a new one, it is inevitable that your users will have to learn how it works. That’s the toll innovation will collect from you — the only toll. If in the end your solution is better and it’s accessible enough — the learning curve is not too steep — then it will get adapted and it is your competitors who will in turn have to keep up with you.
You cannot leap ahead away from your competitors unless you can produce something remarkable — something that they don’t have. Following rules, patterns and conventions can help you make a good product, but it will also restrain you from creating fresh, innovative ideas that push the design of your product to a new level. To do that you have to break away from preconceptions and association bias and focus on developing better solutions for your given problem — solutions that aren’t built by following a set of guidelines, but built to produce better results.
The real danger is falling into the trap of simply doing things the way everyone else does it simply because everyone else expects you to. That is a road with a dead end, and while that destination may suffice, you’ll not be breaking new ground. Instead, strive to make things better. These improvements will be the things that differentiate your product. If they don’t work you can always revert back. If they do, you’ll be the one with a better product, and others will have to follow. In this way you’ll no longer be the one simply obeying rules, you’ll be the one shaping them.