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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977


Design and Usability: Part 1

Not surprisingly, as a designer I value aesthetics highly. However at a certain
point aesthetics clash with functionality – or more specifically usability.
Sometimes I wish I were a painter. No constraints, no font size issues, no low
contrast color combination problems, no accessibility or usability concerns
and no angry users to face. You either like my work or not, no strings attached.
But I’m not a painter, I design websites.

The difference between a painting and a website will be obvious to most. A
painting does not require interaction, at least not on a functional level. I
can not use a painting. I can nevertheless enjoy or dislike
a painting (the same analogy is to some extend applicable
to motion pictures
). A website, on the contrary, has a function that carries
beyond its visual attractiveness. Websites generally require (functional) interaction
of some form. The most feared and tenacious embodiment of interaction being
the homo interneticus.

You know what? Humans are nasty mammals. Humans developed to perfection their
aptitude to bitch, whine, moan, complain, nitpick, nag, criticize, grumble,
protest and disapprove. Ironically though, without users (thus interaction) my job
is rather useless. Designing websites is (unfortunately?) not exclusively about
visually pleasing users, it is also about limiting interference to effectively
deliver content and enable efficient interaction. The latter is of course a
simplified statement; the process is more complex and constituted of more factors
and elements.

In “Design and Usability: Part 2” I will dig a
little deeper and try to discern some of the factors and elements related to
usability and functionality. Last but not least, providentially, humans can
also adore, cherish, care, appreciate, value, understand, realize and love.
It is with these thoughts that I leave you and wish you a Merry Christmas and
a Happy New Year. See you in 2004!

This item was posted by dhilhorst on Wednesday, December 24th, 2003.


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7 comments on “Design and Usability: Part 1”

  1. Posted by Keith on Wednesday, December 24th, 2003.

    Happy Holidays to you as well.

    Something I’m constantly having to explain to people is that Web design, largely because of the factors you mention, is definitely not the same as graphic design.

    They’re related on some levels, but there are very large differences.

  2. Posted by Scrivs on Saturday, December 27th, 2003.

    The wonderful thing about design and aesthetics is that it has been scientifically proven that products with better looking designs are perceived to be easier to use.

    A great read on this is Don Norman’s new book, Emotional Design. The irony of it all though is everything he talks about clashes with his business partner Nielsen.

  3. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Sunday, January 4th, 2004.

    I disagree that one’s desire for aesthetic quality neccessarily interferes with usability or functionality. Paul Rand has a great discussion of aesthetics in his last book, From Lascaux to Brooklyn, where he comments on the Quaker’s and their work with furniture, along with many other examples.

    The aesthetic quality of something is intrinsically locked with how functional and usable it is. When something lacks usability but is pretty to look at it, what is missing is really aesthetic quality. It’s just too many people don’t relate the concept of aesthetic to anything past the surface level.

    Take Google as an example. It’s is very functional, but about as poor a rendering of information design as there ever was. IMO, it’s has a very poor, even amateurish, aesthetic quality to it. Does this need to be the case? No. In fact, if Edward Tufte were given a chance to redesign Google’s Search Results page, I’m sure we would all find that the end result would be more pleasing on the eye and more usable in the process.

    By the way, I think your CSS navigation example is a case in point. Not only does it look better than most boring navigational widgets we see on web sites today, I would argue it’s more usable because the visual clues of selection and animation make for a design that works on more levels.

    So, I ask you not don’t back down in you desire for aesthetic quality! We just need to get the design community pushing the boundaries, and bringing the level of quality to higher levels. We need to stop apologizing for the things we do, and the things we know will improve the experience of the those who live on this planet with us.

    Sorry to ramble…

  4. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Monday, January 5th, 2004.

    Andrei: first of all you should not apologize for rambling. That was a most excellent comment. And, honestly, I think you expressed some of the opinions, feelings and ideas I have myself. Instead of elaborating on the matters you discussed in your comment here I will dedicate another post to it, which will be a good transition to my final post. Because however important aesthetics are, it is crucial to take into account certain factors affecting usability or functionality when designing – such as target audience and product or service, for example. But more on that later, in Part 3. So, in Part 2 I will relate some of my own experiences to your statement that poor usability or functionality is (or is not) related to poor aesthetics exclusively.

  5. Posted by waylman on Wednesday, January 7th, 2004.

    Here is a chance to prove Andrei’s point (about Google anyway). Create your own stylesheet for Google, CSS Zend Garden style. Cool! Maybe I’ll give this a try when and if I find the time. Still haven’t even started on my Zed garden idea. Maybe someday.

  6. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Wednesday, January 14th, 2004.

    I need to correct my comment in here, for the record. Rand discusses the Shakers, not the Quakers, in his book. I always get that mixed up. (And I went to school in Pennsylvania to boot!)

    As for the Google exercise, I’m hoping more people will find the time try it out.

  7. Posted by Web Designer on Wednesday, April 28th, 2004.

    I think functionality is a little bit more important but we defitely should consider aesthetics as well. I totally agree with Scrivs. It is scientifically proven that f.ex. drugs that look attractive have better effect.