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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977

Archive for January, 2004

How To Design User Interfaces

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

Note: the image below was posted as a bit of an experiment, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, following a brief Photoshop skirmish between Didier and me. While no one has complained, I have one thing to say just in case: Zeldman, please don’t kill us ;-)

How To Design User Interfaces

 

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Syntax, Semantics and Pragmatics in Hypertext Documents

Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

What are we talking about? Semantics is a topic that has been much discussed
last year and still remains an important issue (although it’s becoming
somewhat of a buzzword. Hype or reality?). This post is not aimed at discussing
the value or importance of semantics as such, but rather its general framework
and its application to hypertext documents and web sites in general.

Semiotics

Semiotics is commonly known as the general science of signs. Semiotics is composed
of three aspects: a syntactical aspect (syntax or syntactics), a semantic aspect
(semantics) and a pragmatic aspect (pragmatics).

Syntactics (Syntax)

Different forms of data exchange are constituted of signs or combination of
signs (language, code, non-verbal signs — among others). Syntax defines
a set of rules to be applied when exhanging data, thus “the relationship
of signs to what they stand for”. Breaking these rules results in a syntactical
disturbance. An example of this type of disturbance in human data processing
are spelling errors.

For example, using an element spelled <stronk> instead of
<strong>. But also ommiting a closing tag on empty elements
such as <img>. The related DTD
(Document Type Definition) or more recently a Schema
(XML)
contains the rules that define the correct spelling or application of (the signs
that constitute) an element (note: in XML the number of elements are unlimited).

Semantics

Semantics applies to the meaning of data. When exchanging data sender and receiver
will have to assign the same meaning to particular (combinations of) signs,
thus “the relation of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable”.
If this condition is not respected a semantic disturbance will occur. An example
of the above mentioned disturbance is a discussion between two individuals not
being able to understand each other.

The meaning (or context) of specific elements is what we commonly refer to
as the semantic value of code. Therefor the use of <p> elements
is justified in the context of a paragraph and likewise <hn>
n{1,6} elements are used to represent headers in a document. Furthermore elements
have to be nested correctly. For example — in a (X)HTML document —
an <h1> element can not contain a paragraph. The DTD or Schema
explicitely contains nesting rules. However it can not evaluate if the context
of a particular element is semantically correct. Current validators check a
document for syntactical errors, but remain limited in their aptitude to discern
issues related to semantics. The question remains if it’s technically
possible to build an analysis tool spitting out suggestions regarding the semantic
value of a document. Dan Cederholm started
a practical initiative known as SimpleQuiz
— discussing the semantic value of elements in hypertext documents.

Pragmatics

This aspect describes the effect a particular signal has on the behaviour
of the receiver, thus the “relation of signs to (human) interpreters”.
If the effect is different from the senders initial intention a pragmatic disturbance
occurs. A suitable example are speed delimiter signs found on most roads, with
various applicable values. No spelling errors have been made and the data is
correctly interpreted by both sender and receiver — yet some drivers ignore
this signal by speeding.

Pragmatics relate to some extend to usability. How will a user (receiver) act
or react to a given condition, situation or signal (sender). It’s become
best practice to avoid underlining regular text in documents (emphasis), and
reserve this practice exclusively for hyperlinks. Abstracting from context,
syntax nor semantics forbid the above mentioned practice. However, underlining
text that is not a hyperlink (or ommiting to underline a hyperlink) results
in a pragmatic disturbance — users expect a hyperlink to be underlined
(and vice versa).

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Design and Usability: Part 3

Sunday, January 25th, 2004

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)?

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Design and Usability: Part 2

Wednesday, January 7th, 2004

Andrei Herasimchuk left a
very sensible comment
on my previous entry, Design
and Usability: Part 1
. He stated that "The aesthetic quality of something
is intrinsically locked with how functional and usable it is". After thinking
about this statement for a few days I could not think of a single argument to
refute it. However, after a while, I started to deconstruct his sentence and
stumbled over the specific word aesthetics. Bluntly, looking the
word up in a dictionary yields the following definition (among slight variations):

Now, I’ve always learned that:
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", which is a paraphrase of a statement
by Plato. To me the beauty or good taste of an object (or subject) is not intrinsically
locked with how functional and usable it is.

You wish you owned one!For
example, an automobile is mainly a functional object – transportation from point
A (initial position) to point B (final destination). Nonetheless most of us
value the aesthetics of a car highly, for some it might even be their main buying
argument. But does the outer shell of a car (thus its beauty or good taste)
define how functional or usable it is? I think not. We might experience it as
being more functional or usable. But abstracting from beauty a car’s functionality
or usability is defined by how it is designed and not so much by its aesthetic
value. Aesthetics are subjective.

Returning visitors of SuperfluousBanter might have noticed that Andrei’s blog
Design
by Fire
has been added to the Regular Visits section in the sidebar. His
blog is an excellent destination to read about topics related to interface design
and usability, among others. Good content, good design, good code. Run and bookmark
that site!

Topics which
were initially planned for Part 2 will now move to Part 3. In my next post I will
try to discern some of the factors and elements related to usability and functionality.
But in the mean time: what do you think about the relationship between aesthetics,
design, functionality and usability? Discuss.

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