GUI: copy it or design it?

I’m a big believer in following the standards for GUI and interaction design. But when do you copy or reuse an existing design, and when do you design something new? Here’s my guideline for when to design and when to reuse or copy the GUI and interaction:

Reuse When… Design
…there is an external standard.
For example: the Vista UX Guide recommends […].
…there is a GUI or interaction precedent in your software.
For example: we distinguish between Import and Open.
   …the precedent uses an out-of-date interaction style.
For example: the users cannot drag an object to move it.
  …the precedent uses an incorrect mental model.
For example: user preferences are saved in a text file.
  …usability tests say the precedent reduces performance.
For example: 70% of occasional users do this wrong.
 …the developer wants to re-use existing GUI.
For example: use a variable to change the dialog-box title.
 …competitors have implemented the feature better.
For example: when they zoom in, it’s smooth, not stuttered.
 …the market has a certain GUI expectations.
For example: iPhone promoted gestures, others had to copy.
  …the product requires a certain strategic direction.
For example: all data must be sharable, locally and remotely.
  …there aren’t sufficient resources to design.
For example: “There’s no time in the schedule for design.”

Reuse your existing design ordesign it using Five Sketches™.
Copy the competitor’s design orleapfrog their design.
  If you ship a feature with poor interaction or poor usability, where’s the user value and where’s your credibility? Not all design processes are lengthy. Five Sketches™ takes about a day for most features that you’re tempted not to design.

Here’s an example: did Internet Explorer leapfrog Firefox?

A sketch must be disposible

The strength of sketching is that it’s a fast way to capture ideas.

Since a low-fidelity sketch is fast—pen on paper, as shown—it’s also low cost. And low cost means it’s relatively disposable if it turns out you can’t use that idea.

If you don’t like my first 5 ideas, that’s OK. I can have more ideas, easily and at low cost. And so can you.

A variation on this theme: iteration is also painless. With relatively little invested in a sketch, modifying an idea costs marginally more.

The payoff is that you can quickly saturate the problem space with ideas, before you analyse them. This is a key part of why Five Sketches™ works so well for development teams who are in a hurry to start programming.

It’s important to keep sketches cheap. Here’s a video of a cool sketching tool that, if used as a design aid, would greatly increase the project risk. That’s because this cool tool is expensive to install, expensive to learn (it requires training) and expensive to use (it allows only 1 user at a time). All this will reduce the number of sketches in the problem space—and it’s risky to design without considering all options.

The Assist Sketch Understanding System (ASUS) design environment: a computer interprets a sketch and then simulates a cart rolling down a hill.