What makes us creative?

As an industry, we’ve been proclaiming the good news of mobile-first for years. Yet as much as we talk the talk, we don’t always walk the walk. It’s not a bad thing; things are just rarely black or white in real life and in our day-to-day work.

Earlier this year, the Automattic design team conducted the most extensive user research in the team’s history. We knew we would prioritize building a seamless experience that could be fully used across any device, so we could do things right. Be future-friendly. And inclusive, too. For growing numbers of people (especially outside the U.S.), the phone is their only computer.

So consider how surprised I was, while conducting an interview with a small business owner, to hear her say that she wanted nothing to do with making a website on a phone. Then another interviewee said the same thing. And another.

As a product designer, my job is to listen to user’s needs and solve for them. But again, things aren’t black or white. I also make design decisions based on best practices, the current state of the product or service, the goals of the business, and the state of the web overall. Which his why we get so excited to design mobile-first whenever we can.

Our research found that mobile use was extensive, but not exclusive, among our target audience. While participants reported using their phones more than their laptop or desktop computers, this was mostly for communications-related tasks (calls, texts, emails, etc). A mobile experience that was 1:1 with a desktop experience was seen as unnecessary and potentially overwhelming.

For example, accessibility was an issue for older participants. Most gravitated to larger screens for content-production related tasks as working on a smaller screen was difficult and potentially painful.

And so it begins–how do we prioritize user needs? Is it right to play favorites with our users? Do we know best? What about good design?

Whenever we run into these design paradoxes, I think we need to ask ourselves bigger questions instead of smaller ones. Small questions might help us produce requirements, or put together a roadmap. But the bigger questions are the ones that will let us be truly visionary–and inclusive.

The truth is, we still don’t have a unified mental model of how people make websites.

When I listened to that participant elaborate on why she didn’t want to make her website on a phone, she sounded like someone who craved a large, blank canvas. Or a clean sheet of paper.

I’ve also noticed that, for as much as we can create with our phones, freely and repeatedly throughout the day, the vast portion of our time spent using them is for consuming. Our brains go into a passive state when it consumes–which is why the time we spend swiping and scrolling and “liking” can feel so mindless.

We all have a lot to say about ourselves, and who we are. But people rarely–and truly–ask. I wonder if, as we’ve gotten used to sharing so much of ourselves in these passive ways online, when we are actually asked to share who we are, it’s become even harder to know what to say, or how to start. Creation is active. It draws from our truest selves.

So now, instead of trying to identify all the granular things that I can design to make sure that people can build a website on their phone the same way that they do on a computer, I’m asking myself a bigger question:

What makes us creative?