When I travel, I like to stay at little independent hotels.
One time, I checked-in to a new hotel late at night, and loved the design of the lobby. Very modern and cool. Nice person at the front desk, too.
But once inside my room, I couldn't find the light switch.
We all know where it's supposed to be: on the wall, next to the door, a little switch you can feel in the dark. Every place does it like that.
I felt blindly around all the walls near the door, but no switch!
I gave up and went back to the front desk, and told them I couldn't figure out how to turn on the lights.
They said, “Ah, sorry. We get that question every time. Our rooms have no switches. Just feel for a smooth panel on the wall by the door. Slide your hand from left to right across it, to turn on all power in the room. To turn the power off again, slide your hand from right to left.”
Grrrr.... I went back, did it their way, and it worked.
I went to the sink to wash my hands. The faucet had no handles. I couldn't figure out how to turn it on. Eventually I figured out I had to pull down on the faucet itself, and twist it to change the temperature. Grrr....
The alarm clock only had one button. Oh, whatever. I didn't even try.
I slept well but checked out the next day, and switched to a hotel down the street. It also had simple minimalist design, but this time everything did what I expected, and I was full of new appreciation for standards and usability.
If you've ever taken an art class, you can understand the hotel designer's radically creative mentality. “We are going to create a totally different experience, unlike anything else! This will be my unique vision of how we interact with our surroundings. This is better than the boring typical thing that everyone else does.”
I usually love that attitude! Yes! Challenge norms! Give us bold new ideas, and make me look at the world in a new way! I love radical design, modern architecture, and avant-garde music. It seems I'd be the perfect person to appreciate this hotel room.
So what was it that bothered me about that experience? Was I just not in the mood?
Then I figured out the difference, and it's changed how I think of working with others:
Forced to use it?
If a company sells something with a radically new design, and you try it and like it, you can choose to use it, and love it. You're not forced to use it.
In the case of a hotel room: I had already reserved the room, planned my trip, and checked in before realizing they were going to force me to use their unique non-standard interface.
For you website designers: your design choices are like this light switch. Your users have already come to your site, now they're forced to use your interface.
Rarely use it?
Imagine you got a job at a new company that forced you to use a radically different computer that took a while to learn, but was much more productive after a few days of getting used to it.
In that case, being non-standard is OK. Even though you were forced, you had time to get to know it, and might eventually love it.
But most people only stay at a hotel for one or two nights. Everybody is a new user.
It was absolutely pretentious for the designer to think I was going to forget everything I know and learn a whole new way of interacting with the world, just to sleep at a hotel for a night.
So this is just like my favorite web usability law: “users spend most of their time on other websites”
The best design should do what people expect, and should not make them think. So the best design strategy is to do what others do.
That was a really hard lesson for me to learn.
It takes a lot of maturity to let go of that wild ego expression, when you've spent your life in the creative artist mindset.
Quitting quirks when working with others
Then I started thinking about other aspects in life where this applies.
How many times have I insisted the people I work with do everything my unique and quirky way?
The contractors and employees must have felt like I did with the light switch in the hotel.
Realizing how inconsiderate this is, I've dropped my quirks when working with others. I'll keep them private.
When making websites all by myself, I have a very quirky self-made PHP framework I like to use. It works great for me. But to make every programmer I hire work with my quirks would be inconsiderate. So I'm sticking with standards.
It's funny what you can learn from a light switch.