“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

“war against usability culture?” – comments to dirk

On Nov. 11th Dirk Knemeyer wrote a piece for Digital Web called
First off, I think we need to take him with a grain of salt. To say that there is an “end of a culture” implies that there is something permeating our community to the point of saturation and I believe this point sets off people into a dichotomy that prevents people from listening to one another. It is important that we realize there is one fundamental truth and that is we are all dedicated to creating the best products, services, and systems for those who use, buy, and sell them (and those that implement and maintain them, too). If we work from this starting point we can see that Dirk like those he is condemning are just frustrated with what are perceived as extremes of style on both ends of a spectrum. I know plenty of usability specialists would would argue with Dirk on his main premise and there are plenty examples of what they would call “over designed” sites and services out there.

I believe that if we reframe Dirk’s basic argument to be less confrontational and oppositional that we might find that there is a lot in common in our goals, but our perspectives, experiences, processes, and methodologies are what really is different and in some cases I might argue feel if not are incompatible in their current state. In the end though I don’t think any designer visual, interaction, industrial or otherwise, would willingly and knowingly want to create a great looking product that no one can use. And I don’t think that a usability expert really believes that visual design does not have a place in digital products.

That being said, I would like to address the usability community on my next point and I do so speaking as a designer. Usability and HCI are NOT, I repeate are NOT, design disciplines, nor are they creative-positive endeavors. They have a HUGE import to the total product development and design process and we would be nowhere without them, but we need to be honest with ourselves. This is NOT to say that there aren’t practitioners out there who do HCI, Usability, and Design, but that does not make the disciplines they do all design disciplines.

So what is a design discipline? What is a designer? First off, I’m sure there are about a gazillion answers to this question, though I’m starting to understand that those gazillion answers are all prtty close to the following. Design is a process, whereby stated and related “problems” are deconstructed into base units, so that the related observed problems are restated in such a way as to not already contain a solution. Most stated, related, and observed problem statements contain solutions in them. This deconstruction process is a key to the overall design process and is a core to what makes a real designer a good designer. Design when done best is done collaboratively. It is done with the right manageable number of central nervous systems focused on the problem at one time. Design stalls, stagnates, and spoils when it is done in such a way where a single practitioner is asked to go off on their own create a solution (a prototype) and then come back to stakeholders for evaluation later. Lastly, design is NOT about aesthetics, “creativity” in the sense of “out of the box”, or innovation for its own sake. Good design uses the theories of user emotion that are directly related to theorectical groundings very similar to those of HCI such as color theory, white space, form vs. function, perspective, typographyc, semiotics, iconography, creative writing, etc. These have the same level of understanding (in many cases more) than those theories of HCI like Fritt’s Law, input/output device management, collaborative technologies, social technologies, etc.

So in this regard I feel that while Dirk is trying to uplift design, he also attributed a definition of design that is its stereotype as opposed to what it can really mean. What is most possible for the UX community is that deign is a process that employed by all, and that what people think of as “creative design” are really as much informative to final solutions as the research and validation processes of HCI and Usability. It is all a great balancing act and the goal is to inform the solution which in our world is made up of 3 items: structure, behavior, and presentation.

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  • http://ronz.blogspot.com Ron Zeno

    A very nice take on an article I didn’t like at all. I’d only comment on your statement that Usability and HCI are design disciplines: You dont think they do design as you define it. I don’t think it matters because they’re not disciplines.

  • http://synapticburn.com Dave

    Ron, hmm? disciplines might be the wrong word … “areas of practice”? “types of practice”? pieces of the UX puzzle? In that case I wouldn’t call IxD a discipline either. It is just a segment of Design necessary for the creation of digital experiences.

  • http://www.bokardo.com Joshua Porter

    I think we’re in agreement. Dirk seemed to make an unhelpful split – you and I both used the word “dichotomy”.

    However, your definition of design feels too much like a usability mindset than many designers would allow. My definition: design is creating something for use. Finding problems is what evaluators do, and I just don’t see many designers taking much of an evaluative approach, except from a visual standpoint, that is. Of course, many problems are not visual, but contextual.

    “Design not about aesthetics”…How many designers have you got on that bandwagon?

    It’s not that I don’t agree: I just feel that designers have a completely different mindset. It’s a constant challenge to get designers to do anything like accept an objective evaluation of their design outside of the realm of aesthetics (or even within that realm, for that matter)

  • http://synapticburn.com dave

    Hi Joshua,
    hmm? I think that if we went to the AIGA nationa conference on design you’d be totally correct. But if we went to IDEO, Smart, Frog, Ave A, Apple computer, Microsoft (even) and all the other top notch x-physical/virutal designer communities out there you will find that many do not think about end product as much as they think about process. I think that design schools are at issue here (I suggest looking at nextd.org) because the undergrad departments especially are a place where artists go because they have to go to school and their parents won’t pay for anything that isn’t practical. So “design” is not taught to its fullest in these environments. But at the graduate level there is a lot more focus on process and overal form/function balance. There are much fewer of these folks out there.


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