To: Friends and enemies
Subject: Gleanings: a new war begins
Jesse James Garrett posted this fun note to the Special Interest Groups- Information Architecture mailing list
Begin howls of outrage… now.”
and there have been. However, this list is archived in a rather sketchy manner, and I was unable to find the posts. If anyone has more luck….
Anyhow, I included a couple of my favorite responses at the bottom of this mail.
I’d love to hear graphic designers’ responses to this article.
(I know you’re out there, you write me little notes with no capitalization–
Please write firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll post any good responses I get to a future glean.
Also, George sent this fun article
“Refugees from the dot-com rat race are fueling a boom in leisure adventures. On their journeys, they’re bumping into each other in the most far-flung outposts.
FYI, the Times puts stuff behind their archive wall fairly quickly, so it may not be accessible for more than a few days until ya gotta pay to see it.”
Alan Cooper: The Iteration Trap.
High-tech companies are in a hurry–as well they should be–but many hurt themselves by trying to move products out the door too quickly. I often hear executives repeat homilies like “Ship early, ship often,” and “Launch and learn.” They assume that there is no penalty for simply slapping something together…
Useit.Com: From April 2, 2000; The Mud-Throwing Theory of Usability
Web Techniques: Effective Web Writing.
As people have swarmed into this new medium, they’ve brought all their bad habits from other media–especially from TV and its obsession with moving images. Simple, boring text just doesn’t seem to cut it, except as something to keep the animated GIFs from bumping into each other.
Online Journalism Review: Dot-com Content Sites Get Creative.
“What investor would invest in content after all the criticism it’s taken?”
says Michael O’Donnell, president of Salon. As a result, content sites have
had to morph into something more. And the year ahead may mark the end of
thinking about them exclusively as Web sites.
News.Com: Operational excellence deters serious Web outages.
People who want to throw stones at Microsoft should realize that they also
live in glass houses. They should go down to their glass house (data or
operations center) and make very sure that their operations group is well
funded and has implemented a strong operational excellence plan…
RESPONSES TO THE ALISTAPART.COM ARTICLE
Since I come from a graphic design background (as well as a writing background), I’ll step into the fray…. I think there’s been a number of good points made, but here’s mine:
Regardless whether you agree with the article, you better be prepared deal with the attitude. Remember the “usabilty is dead” article? There’s a bit of a backlash going on and I’m not sure it’s all bad. In part I think the backlash is due to usability experts, like Neilsen, etc., laying claim to the whole of “user experience.” While usability is obviously important, it’s not the only consideration.
A looong time ago, David Siegel argues in his seminal “Balkinization of the Web” http://www.dsiegel.com/balkanization/ there are (at least) three aspects to sites: information, interaction (my paraphrase), and experience (my paraphrase). The most appropriate design for a site depends on the relative importance of each of these. The problem right now is that (to stereotype) the gurus in UI tend focus only on interaction, and the gurus in IA tend to focus only on information — and don’t pay much attention to other two.
There are two striking examples of this. In Jared Sprool’s first report on Web usability back in the ’90s, he talked about how there was all this stuff called “content” (which didn’t occur in software UI design) and no one had any idea about how to present it effectively — apparently he’d never talked with a graphic designer, writer or film maker. The second example, is Jakob Neilsen’s site, which present lots of good information but fails miserably in its attempts to reach one of the intended audience (graphic designers) because the site is ugly. (Compare http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ to http://www.nathan.com/thoughts/index.html which is also almost all text.) The “information” is there, but the “experience” to designers is one of “when librarians attack.”
And so graphic designers are pushing back on the experience side of the equation. Graphics designers can also bring an understanding of things like corporate branding, marketplace differentiation and appropriate images — which just may be important for your site/product — and which UI and IA often overlook, or outright dismiss. Deborah Mayhew’s “Usability Engineering Lifecyle” is the first recent book I’ve seen that really acknowledges this, although unfortunately she doesn’t bother to address these issues.
Part of this goes to what level are we designing at Constantine and Lockwood’s “Software for Use” offers a really good look at the various layers:
* Aesthetics-Surface appearances or “non-functional” aspects of appearance.
* Form-“Functional” aspects of appearance, i.e. visual design used to aid usability, such using color coding to differentiate controls.
* Behavior-How interfaces and information components act. Typically harder to achieve.
* Function-System offers new capabilities. Much sought after by marketing, but since functions are easy to create, it’s also easy to create functions that aren’t useful, leading to creeping featuritis.
* Architecture-Novel and effective reorganization of conventional or familiar user interface elements. Probably the biggest challenge for developers, but may offer the biggest gains in usability.
Graphic designers are definitely involved in only “aesthetics” — and unfortunately, techies and all too many IA/UI people seem to think that’s they’re only role. That’s what the article’s compliant about page specs centers around. But good designers definitely are knowledgable about “form” issues, and potentially “behavior issues” (less so for visual designers, and more so for interactive multimedia designers). Another part of the article irritation stems from IA/UI people hammering designers about thing that designers think are obvious. Don’t clutter the layout with too many items — no kidding…. I’ve seen a lot of bad CHI research due to the lack of people with a graphic design background. (For example, one study was amazed to discover that type set along the edge of a circle (for a round dialogue window) was less preferred by female users than a traditional “white male” dialogue window. Nowhere was it mentioned that the text was much harder to read….)
Part of this goes back to the potential issue of mutual lack of respect of among different disciplines. Be honest, how many of you have viewed designers simply as the ones who “make it pretty”?
Now I agree there are plenty of designers who do simply want to “make it pretty.” This is where the distinction someone made between “graphic designers” and “graphic artists” is critical. Just as the UI/IA field isn’t monolithic, neither is the graphic design — both in the temperment of the people in it, as well as the various subfields. As was mentioned earlier, “graphic artists” do tend to be more artsy and think exclusively in terms of aesthetics. “Graphic designers” tend to broader there view to include form, and in fact may be more focused there. It’s important to remember which type you’re dealing with. It’s also important to know the background of the artist/designer you’re working with. People with a background in publication design have had to solve problems that are similiar to those involved in IA (form). (In fact, “information architecture” as a title for the field can be traced back to Richard Saul Wurman’s attempts to organize information for publications.) Those from an advertising background tend to be more aesthetics-focused.
There’s also a decades-long argument within graphic design between “art” and “functionality,” most notably among typographers about how type should reflect its content. Should it do so in a way that’s not consciously noticed by the reader, or should it be used overtly and expressively. I’d argue there’s no One True Answer, it really tends on the interplay between information, experience and interaction.
On a related note, as mentioned there’s been a lack of respect for “applied arts,” such as graphic design and journalistic/technical writing. So another issue to content with is that the graphic design field tends to have an unstated — and often unconscious — view that “artsy” design is superior (since it’s closer to “art.”) (Writing shares a similar hidden viewpoint: that “real” writers are working on novels or screenplays instead of articles, manuals or copywriting.) A look at the design magazine winners shows they’re generally flashy and artsy designs. And in part that reflects the sensibilties of designers, who by definition are more visually sophisticated than the general population. (This is the equivalent of programmers designing interfaces that make sense to other programmers.)
However, the good designers *do* tend to be user-focused, which is another annoyance when IA/UI people come in assume they’re the only ones who care about this. But it’s important to understand that graphic design as a discipline is a fairly intuitive one. Few designers will have statistics to support a particular design decision. But they *do* have five centuries of beta-testing experience (at least) that’s guiding them. The “interface” elements of graphic design (for example, how a book or magazine) have come through years of trial and error — and they’re so successful we don’t even think abou them.
Getting back to the One True Design issue, I do think less sophisticated IA/UI people can come across as the “usability police” quoting Neilsen, Sprool, Creative Good, etc to shoot down designs, rather than doing the difficult task of balancing competing interests. Less sophisticated IA/UI people also seem to focus somewhat exclusively on one side of the information-experience-interaction equation. And in a very real sense I’ve seen people who are “design-blind” (as in colorblind), who really don’t see a difference between good visual design and bad. This is where I think we need to be careful that we’re not designing IA/UI for other IA/UIs. This goes to the heart of Alan Cooper’s argument that you cant’t design by heuristics alone. Doing so risks an IA/UI that’s “correct” but fails in the real world because it’s out of touch with the particularly users/audience its intended for.
(On a related note, one problem with usability testing — much like market reseach — is that it tends to be backwards-looking. Just as market research usually fails to discover truly innovative and desire products — like the internet — usability testing will tend to ignore innovative UIs because such UIs are new and people need to learn them before they become a defacto standard. Look at Neilsen’s early columns and you’ll see some techniques that break the “rules” — for example, no scrolling — that are widely accepted today. If we only use “accepted” UI, we become stagnant enforcers of “the rules”, as the article rightly complains about. The real question is whether innovation is an “appropriate” design solution. For example, the International Herald Tribue UI that’s been discussed here is appropriate because there’s probably a higher percentage of regular visitors, who are more likely to learn it and use it.)
Ideally, graphic artists/designers are part of a *team* along with UI/IAs, content strategists, (as well as potentially brand strategists, business analysts and systems analysts) among others. There is, and should be, overlap among these roles where different people are able to provide a wider perspective to the particular areas of focus. Ideally, IA/UIs know enough about the other’s job that they understand where these overlaps occur and show a mutual respect about the differences in perspectives.
That’s the ideal, unfortunately, as shown by the article, a lot of places don’t function as a team. In these cases, the overlapping areas can be divisive since UI/IAs can be seen as stepping on the toes or others, especially when UI/IAs don’t appear (at least to others) to understand the role that others play. Part of this is reality — I don’t think a number of IA/UIs necessarily understand the value others bring — and part of it is how we communicate to others. For example, as mentioned in the article, it’s all to easy for a “page spec” to be interpreted as The Layout, and all that’s left for the designer to do is to paint-by-numbers to complete the design.
There are a number of steps UI/IAs can take to improve the communication problems. To the the issue about The Layout, one easy ste is to abstract the “page spec” down to its “essence” and represent it as a cluster map rather than a wireframe. It still explains what elements need to be on the page and how they should be organized, but it gives the graphic design more room to be creative. At a larger level, it means educating other people about what we do — as was pointed out, we do tasks that designers might run away from screaming — including a frank discussion of where there are overlap. And finally it means actually colaborating together with a mutual respect. Understand there *are* competing needs and the art of good design is making the appropriate tradeoffs.
George Olsen email@example.com
User Experience Architect at-large 310-403-0301
As someone who works with graphic designers-boarding-on-Picasso, I’m
not surprised by this article. Over the entire history of graphic
design the profession has rarely gotten any respect and doesn’t at
all in the web-related projects I’ve been involved in. After all you
too can be a designer! All you need is some drawing software and a
color printer!! Moreover, can you even quantify aesthetic decisions?
Few people recognize the knowledge and expertise that a designer
attains through years of study and practice in typography, letter
forms, visual communication theory, art history, art theory &
criticism, color theory, visual balance and hierarchy … Most
people I’ve met through web projects feel fully justified questioning
a visual designer on minute details of their designs. Nothing is off
limits when critiquing a designers work because there is few people
recognize that the designer has a specialized knowledge. The only way
to protect your credibility as a designer is through sheer
personality and elitism.
Ask yourself, do you consider graphic design a profession on the
level with IA? If so you’ll have to recognize, design has been around
a whole lot longer than this nacent IA professional aspiration. Or do
you think of design as an economic alternative for
wanna-be-fine-artists who want to afford that $3 latte?
Design has it’s own internal perpetual argument about ‘is design
art?’ ‘is art design?’ ‘are they different’. It’s never resolved but
generally there is seen to be a major difference between the two
practices. The main one being that art is about personal expression
and design is about solving problems for other people, about
communicating and about enabling.
In interface design, IAs cross a line with designers when they seek
to deliver a specification that is basically a coloring book and
don’t allow for an interplay between the visual design of an
interface and the navigation structure and page layout/content