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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977

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Design and Usability: Part 3

If the two words design and usability are mentioned together
you can be sure that user testing will follow within a few sentences
or paragraphs — at most. But what about the steps taken before throwing
your design to the lions? Starting a web project implies collecting and defining
nonexclusive factors that will influence how things will look, feel, communicate
and function.

You Don’t Start With Usability Testing

I’m not talking about user testing (or user needs specifically), but
rather generic topics that influence the level of interactivity, functionality
and eventually usability. (Un)fortunately there’s no golden rule or set
of axioms which can be followed or implemented during the development of any
given web site or user interface — each project has different requirements
(on all levels). For example: a news site is not an online shop and a weblog
is not a search portal.

Not having a preformatted or standardized list of (all) elements and details
to implement at your disposal during the design phase, does not mean the entire
process should be unstructured. I think a collection of global denominators
can help structure the process and make sure the design fits the purpose of
the web site (goals). Before I mention some of these generic factors which guide
and direct (to a certain degree) a design process, let’s look a bit closer
at how such a process would apply in practice:

Structure, Guidance and Direction

 

How Design and Usability Relate

As depicted above — generic factors originate from external
entities and variables (i.e. the world). I don’t think many projects
would end up being successful if internal factors and preferences were to be
taken into account exclusively. Design and usability flow from a sensible and
balanced mixture of both internal and external information. Drawing from my
own experience, discussions and projects with Dan, an academic article entitled
What
Is Beautiful Is Usable
” by authors N. Tractinsky, A.S. Katz, D. Ikar
and comments
made by Andrei
Herasimchuk
(who currently works for Adobe
Systems
and has worked on the interfaces for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator,
and Adobe InDesign), I’ve come to the conclusion that indeed “the
perceived aesthetic quality of an object or subject is intrinsically locked
with how users experience functionality and usability” (adapted from a
statement
previously made by Andrei). But I disgress…

Dude, What About Your Generic Factors?

I’m confident that every designer worth his salt has already come up
with a few generic factors that influence design and usability decisions. Design
and usability are eventually about communication and interaction (HCI).
Below I’ve summed up some of the factors that could be taken into account
starting a project:

Above I’ve tried to answer four questions: Why? Who? What? and How? These
generic factors will enable the definition of how design and usability will
be implemented throughout the project. Does this mean we’ll get it right
from the start? Not likely. We’ve merely established a hypothesis —
we think or assume it might work out as planned. It’s at this
point that you throw your design to the lions (the beta testers or an external
pool of users). The latter is a process of trial and error — discerning
and adapting elements that did not work as expected (back to the design phase
and prototype) and keeping elements that have a positive or intended effect.

This Is Not an Exact Science

Naturally I’ve abstracted some elements or steps in the process. Furthermore
design and usability are not exact sciences. Thus 1 + 1 often does not equal
2; it’s more along the line of 1 + 1 equals something you didn’t
expect
. Feelings, opinions and perceptions play an important (if not decisive)
role, but they’re subjective (difficult to structure). The best thing
we can do is work towards an effective outcome. An outcome that is unfortunately
constituted of factors, elements and drivers of which most are (partly or completely)
unknown.

So what’s your take on the subject? What factors do you take into account?
Did I miss any? Where do you put the emphasis: aesthetic quality or functionality
— or is there no trade-off necessary (both being intrinsically linked)?

This item was posted by dhilhorst on Sunday, January 25th, 2004.

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3 comments on “Design and Usability: Part 3”

  1. Posted by Mike on Sunday, January 25th, 2004.

    I truly do not believe there is a trade-off between aesthetics and usability. The oft-quoted (but seldom referenced) saying goes like this:

    “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” -Antoine de Saint Exupery

    In regard to the aesthetic quality of a given interface, I believe that a well-designed site is also inherently usable — if only for the fact that usability consistently grows from simplicity.

    That’s what designers do. We take highly complicated things, and communicate them visually in the most simplistic manner possible; which, in itself, is beauty.

    BTW: Great illustration. The page is hosed in Safari (Jaguar) though.

  2. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Monday, January 26th, 2004.

    “I believe that a well-designed site is also inherently usable — if only for the fact that usability consistently grows from simplicity.”

    While I think I understand the gist of your point, I wouldn’t phrase it as such. I would never claim a well-designed site is inherently anything. It’s chances of being more usable are more probable than compared to a poorly designed site. But beware the assumptions that must be made on the part of others to infer that well-designed somehow equals simple. I do agree with you BTW, but when preaching to heathens, one must sympathize or be cognizant with the way they view the world. 8^)

    I wrote up an article on my own design process that is somewhat tangental to Didier’s. You can find it here. I don’t get into specifics on what criteria or types of data I use in the exploration phase, which might be a good thing to write up at some point.

    Generally speaking, though, my starting points usually rely heavily on structural concepts, things that have to do with the nature of the object I am working on. For example, when working on Photoshop, it was more important for me to understand everything there was to know about how pixels and raster images worked before I got into anything else. I really feel the research phase, of both technology and the audience, on any project is easily the most important.

    This is not to say I ignore other factors listed in this article. It’s just I find that I get further along in the exploration/generic factors phase when I have fully come to understand the nature of the thing I am working on. It’s like taking apart a stereo, or a remote control, or a car engine, and really getting how the thing was put together to make it operate.

    Once I have a grasp on this, then I find I can tackle design issues. Without it, I tend to wander, stumbling in the dark.

    BTW: This page is not hosed in Safari and Panther. 8^)

  3. Posted by Dan R. on Monday, January 26th, 2004.

    We’re trying to nail down the cause of the display bug in Safari 1.0/Jaguar, but we don’t have any machines running 10.2 anymore, so: if anyone is experiencing the display issue Mike reported, please email a screenshot to me (use the link at the top of the sidebar) so we can fix it swiftly.

    Or, you can just upgrade to Panther, where everything looks quite spiffy :-)