Are guidelines useless?

Upon reading Employee Directory Search: Resolving Conflicting Usability Guidelines (Alertbox Feb. 2003)

“In recent studies on how employees in a range of companies use their intranets, an important guideline emerged: intranets should provide a dedicated search box for finding phone numbers and other employee directory information. Preferably, this employee directory box should appear on every page of the intranet, and it should definitely appear on the top levels of an enterprise portal and on the main intranet homepage.
That’s one usability guideline.
At the same time, one of the most established usability guidelines for search is to provide no more than a single search box on the homepage. Competing homepage search boxes are confusing, and advanced search should be relegated to a secondary position inside the site to avoid seducing users away from the simple search, which they’re more likely to use correctly.
That’s another, conflicting, usability guideline.

Mr. Nielsen goes on to be puzzled as to what to do, and resolves it by recommending emperical thinking and human observation. I think he’s talking about design….

About a year ago, when Nielsen’s book on homepages came out, a friend told me his employer’s site was 90% compliant, and 100% unusable. How were the guidelines useful in redesigning that page?

I’ve also heard it said guidelines are helpful for beginner designers, before they get experience.

You know what? I think beginner designers are the ones who should be kept away from guidelines, as far as possible. Instead, they should work on looking at usable designs, and designing, and seeing their designs tested and retested (in the words of the great homer simpson, “lather rinse repeat. always repeat.”).

ON the Yahoo intranet homepage, we’ve got a search box, a dropdown with “employee, text, and conference room” as the choices and a submit button. Occasionally I make a mistake and search for text in the employee database, but 9 times out of ten, I’m looking up an employee and for the odd times I’m looking for a form or a policy, I do usually catch the dropdown before my pinkie makes a dive for the enter key (they have a mind of their own, those digits).

Still better would be to run queries against each database and return answers from each, rather like amazon does… most of the time amazon knows if you are searching for a book or a CD, and when they don’t, they offer you choices from each category. Why not apply this tidy solution to the intranet problem?

This is called design. Thinking about a problem, and thinking up answers by looking at the world around us: design. Blindly adhering to guidelines is not design. Looking at guidelines and comparing them to the world and deciding if they are applicable to your unique situation: design.

Don’t get me wrong, I think guidelines are valuable. Often I come up against a usability problem and say to myself, “Hey it’s a proximity problem” and can fix it easily. But those guidelines have meaning to me because they represent compressed experience.

A guideline– such as “Place related items in close proximity to each other”– is simple a mnemonic for the hundreds of times I’ve seen users in a lab not notice something because it’s on the other side of the page from the thing they were looking at. The guideline really falls down when the subtleties of the rule are revealed… I’ve noticed that a line between two items is a hard divider for the user’s eyes. One might think that the proximity rule would keep this problem from happening– if they are close, they are associated, right? But I know proximity isn’t just physical space, but also visual structure of that space. A line between two items is the same to a user’s perception of relatedness as an inch of whitespace.

When I worked on the book, I tried to get around the problem for guidelines needing context by using lots of examples and stories. But I wonder if this can make up for the value of watching users use your designs.

I would say if you are a junior designer the three things you can do to become great are:

1. Look at great design. Collect books, use other people’s websites that have been earmarked as good but also winning book and industrial design, visit museums. All media is relevant.

2. Watch every single session of usability testing you can, no matter how redundant the problems may seem. Sometimes the fifth user will suddenly surprise you. Take notes (it will help keep your attention high) and sketch little design solution-ideas to the problems you see in the margins of those notes.

3. Design all the time. Design for fun, design for work. Design a homepage, Design a page for your mom, your sister, your favorite charity… design design design.

And above all, take every guideline with a grain of salt. A guideline is a starting place, not an ending place for thinking. Ask yourself questions after reading an Alertbox– “Why would a dedicated search box for employee search be valuable? Maybe that is the most common type of search. Hey, maybe I’ll check the logs. Hey, maybe I’ll interview some employees, and see what they search for. Hey, maybe I can design it this way…..” then test and watch.

Mr. Nielsen says “The usability field is one in which empirical observation and theoretical analysis reinforce each other.”

I’d add that the design field is one where thought and empathy lead to more satisfying products. Guidelines are useful when the reference thinking, but dangerous when they shut it down.