Power to the Users

6 04 2011

Bruce Tognazzini’s “First Principles of Interaction Design” hits on some very powerful things often overlooked in interaction design. He briefly discusses a scenario involving entering time on a microwave. He argues that if you bring the user into the equation, it is technically faster to microwave something for 1 minute, 11 seconds rather than 1 minute and 10 seconds. As I thought about that, and about my own microwave, I came to the conclusion that while interaction design is primarily for the user, the actual equation of how the user will interact with the product is often ignored.

As a consumer in the 21st century, I’ve dealt with my fair share of microwaves. My sole purpose in using a microwave is to get my meal warmed up as quickly as humanly possible. When I approach a microwave, I instantly scan for the fastest way to get the microwave started so I can be on my way to lunch. I assume most microwave designers have planned for me over time to learn to choose one of the cleverly designed shortcut buttons and select the key that corresponds to what I’m microwaving, whether it be popcorn, a frozen entree, baked potato, etc. Actually, in my life-long history with microwaves, I don’t recall ever actually using one of those shortcut buttons. I usually scan, then locate the numbers and set the timer to whatever I feel is best for my food. For me, this is the fastest, easiest way to get my meal. I have no desire to learn the location of fancy shortcut buttons, I want the most direct path to warm food without learning any new skills. I’m sure the microwave designers imagined a loving relationship growing between me and my microwave as I learned each shortcut button and was soon able to microwave all kinds of things by pressing only one button. In the 5 years with my current microwave, I don’t believe I’ve ever used any of its functions beyond the 10 digit number pad to set the time and occasionally the defrost function. How strange then, that so many microwaves come standard with all these functions that no one ever uses. Of course, I’m just making a broad generalization based on my personal experiences. However, it seems to me a lot of time was wasted on designing pre-programmed settings for foods without testing whether or not people would actually use those functions. From a design perspective, it sounds like a great idea. Having pre-programmed settings makes the appliance more efficient, but as a user, I’m not interested in learning the secrets of the shortcut buttons, I’d rather just have my lunch.

So what does that tell us? It all comes back to another of Tognazzini’s points: “The only way to ascertain user expectations is to do user testing. No amount of study and debate will substitute.” Taking shortcuts is not an option. Many products fail to meet a user’s needs because of a failure to do proper user testing. Sites like usertesting.com are devoted to provided feedback to website owners directly from users in their target demographics. An article by Patrick Wong also details the importance of user testing in each stage of the web design process.

One of Bruce’s strongest points comes in discussing the difference between empowering users to be efficient versus building a highly efficient system. A well designed system will allow users to be efficient because it will have taken their needs into account as well as how they will interact with it. The success of any product relies on it’s users, which is why it is crucial to cater to their needs and behavioural tendencies.

“The Paradox of Technology”

23 03 2011

The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, discusses something Norman calls the “paradox of technology”. Norman’s paradox states that as functionality is added, technology tends to become more complex. Of course, this doesn’t mean that functionality should be kept to a minimum, but that good design is required to minimize the difficulty of added functions. Norman factors in things like mapping, visibility and psychology to his deductions.

Norman’s book was written in 1990, and the designs of the telephones discussed in his first chapter are quite dated. His suggestions to improve the telephones by adding a display screen for a menu have now been incorporated into modern phones found in most businesses. Looking at modern technology, functionality has been added to the phone beyond what anyone could have imagined. With the miniaturization that has taken place in computers, it is now possible to incorporate the functions of many electronic devices into one device. The average cellphone is now also an mp3 player, radio, calculator, camera, gaming system, web browser, alarm clock, agenda, GPS device, and more in addition to regular phone functions. Had things continued along in the way Norman was observing, it is unlikely anyone would be able to use these all-in-one devices. However, thanks to clever design, although there is a learning curve involved, most cell-phones are relatively easy to use to the maximum functional potential. This is not to say that the epidemic of bad design has been cured. Bad design still exists, but looking at the case of the telephone, it would seem that good design has rooted out most of the issues Norman discusses. One of the main technologies we have to thank for this is the improvement and implementation of the touchscreen. Touchscreens allow maximum functionality and visibility of controls. They are not limited to physical buttons, meaning that screen space can be populated with only the buttons needed for functions pertaining to each screen in the interface. This limits confusion, as only the buttons a user would need are visible and clearly labelled. These interfaces have been perfected so that even the blind can easily navigate them 

Modern cellphones are a good example of adding functionality to a device while keeping usability relatively simple to understand. Much can be learned from observing the successful integration of so many handheld devices into one usable, effective tool. Paying closer attention to the user experience and how devices are mapped is key to acheiving “good design”.

Other Resources

A variety of things need to be considered for the user experience of touchscreen devices. This page briefly details some things to be considered when designing touchscreen kiosks in public places. 

Touchscreen technology has not yet been perfected. It has a lot of potential in a variety of applications. This is a review smashing magazine did on using tablets as design tools for sketching mockups to show to clients and co-workers.

The Gray Area between Aesthetics and Functionality

2 03 2011

Don Norman’s “Attractive Things Work Better” makes a persuasive case that aesthetics play an important role in a product’s usability. He makes the conclusion that visually appealing things improve one’s mood, and that people will be more tolerant when things go wrong if they are in a good mood. Norman presents findings from his studies showing that a brain in positive mood is more open to learning, distraction, and creative thoughts. On the other hand, a brain in a negative mood has a very narrow range of processing, making one concentrate harder on the task at hand. From these studies he concludes that if something looks attractive, the designer will be able to get away with more, and users will find it easier to use.

Image taken from smashingmagazine.com

 Norman’s article provides much to think about. Can the attractiveness of a website really have that much of an effect on it’s usability? Louis Lazaris of Smashing Magazine seems to think just the opposite in his article. He argues that the plain looking, older version of the Facebook homepage is just as usable, and perhaps more so than the newer, flashier homepage. Another article from Smashing Magazine highlights some websites that focus solely on attractiveness, but have huge usability issues. Clearly aesthetics alone cannot compensate for poor design.

Who’s side should you as a designer choose? Even Norman states that “there is no simple set of rules”. All of us have different tastes and preferences and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. It is clear that pushing too far in either direction will not provide the best results. Norman’s article does not say that we should ignore usability completely, but rather points out that enhancing the visual aesthetic of a product can aid users and create a more positive user experience. Functionality should remain a priority in design, but evidence like what Norman is putting forward makes it clear that designers should not forget the essential role aesthetics plays in the user experience. There appears to be no clear answer or formula here for acheiving that perfect balance, leaving yet another grey area for us designers to manage on our own…

Sketching it Out

9 02 2011

Image credit- Scott A Savage via flickr.com

Sketching ideas can be an excellent way to communicate concepts to others, as Mark Baskinger outlines in his article, “Pencils Before Pixels”. But sketching our ideas doesn’t come easily to everyone. Many of us are self-concious of our drawing skills and this limits our ability to express our ideas. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t draw? In the end, it’s this type of thinking that prevents us from being able to put our thoughts onto paper. The truth of it is, skill has very little to do with it. We all have the ability to draw to an extent, and the only way to get better is throug practice. One suggestion I’ve read in many places is to sketch with a black marker as opposed to a pencil. A marker is a lot more permanent than a pencil, which means you need to have committed to the idea before you’ve even begun to draw it. This may sound a bit scary, as you can’t erase any mistakes you make with a marker. However, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? As Joshua Brewer of 52weeksofux.com states, “The sketch is not the end goal. The end goal of the drawing process is what you learn while sketching.” One could even argue the more mistakes you make, the better. In order to fully explore an idea, it must be drawn from many perspectives and the more you sketch the idea, the more refined it will become.

While all of these suggestions are great, I personally struggle with knowing exactly what to draw. I often find it easier to express my ideas in words first before I start sketching. Baskinger’s solution for this is to ease into it. He’s even provided worksheets to help with the transistion. Of course, practice makes perfect, and the more often you sketch your ideas the better you’ll get. For people who are still a bit hesitant, there are places like uistencils.com that sell helpful tools like browser template sketchpads and stencils. Sitting down and sketching out your ideas before touching the computer is an essential step in the evolution of a design, so what are you waiting for? Pick up a marker and start sketching today!

Additional resources:

Jason Robb has an exellent article on sketching at uxbooth.

A flickr group has been created for the sharing of ux sketches.

Some of the original concept sketches for well-known websites.

The Design Debate

26 01 2011

The ongoing debate of what constitutes good design has been brought up once again in Richard Buchanan’s article “Good Design in the Digital Age”. Buchanan argues that good design isn’t just about how a product looks, or how well it performs; it is also about user experience. In order to design a product well, a designer must understand the intimate interactions between the user and the product. The user needs to feel comfortable exploring the product without fear of making errors. The key to good design is to achieve a balance between practicality, ease of use, and how desirable it is.

Buchanan is right. Achieving a balance between usability, usefulness, and desirability is essential to good design. But how can this balance be achieved? The broad range of products in the marketplace means that each case will be different. There is no magical formula for finding the perfect balance to achieve good design. We as designers must take into account a wide variety of factors to ensure the highest level of usability, practicality, and desirability to the largest possible audience. It is impossible to satisfy everyone, so we must find the happy medium that keeps both the client and the target audience satisfied.

When designing interfaces with users in mind, a user experience check list such as this one from the Microsoft Library, may be of assistance.

  One well designed blog I find myself returning to on a regular basis is 1000AwesomeThings.com. It is updated consistently (every weekday) with a new awesome thing and is always well written. It is simple in terms of layout and is easy to navigate.


 This diagram depicts user interface design visually.  

Image compliments of jktech.com