“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

Aesthetics in Enterprise Applications

I looked up Aesthetics on ye new wikipedia and found that there were sub links for music, architecture, visual design and some others. Aesthetics though tends to be most associated not with the outcome of a creation process, but rather a deconstructive criticism of existing products.

I’ve decided that of late I want to explore philosophically what aesthetics may imply when thinking about 2 areas of interest: 1. interaction and 2. the enterprise.

Upon looking for some definitions, one sees a recurring them of the word “beauty”. But that in and of itself seems to me to be as culturally and individually derived as what my previous understanding of aesthetics were before this brief bout of research—aesthetics are “positive taste”.

The reality of “taste” is that while it is individual on one level it is also cultural on another. This creates a complex problem for the designer who has to accommodate all possible stakeholders of the systems they create. However, they can’t—if they are successful anyway—design towards the lowest common denominator.

While in my industrial design class at the Pratt Institute last fall, we were asked to bring in examples of designs that we felt were good and then explain why we felt so. My favorite example was not the one I brought in, but rather the Kitchen Aide mixer. A classic for over a half a century for sure. Both fitting the industrial complex and the home user, it has a design aesthetic that I would call ultimately successful.

Believe it or not, I would not call the iPod of equal ultimate success, as it does not have this type of pervasive aesthetic that can pass across the blood:brain barrier that is consumer to business and it is this barrier that I would like to begin exploring over the next period and hopefully in so doing on my blog, I’ll find others that are interested. Keep an eye out on my new category, “aesthetics”.

To be honest, I’m not sure that “aesthetics” is even the right word to be thinking about the problem set, that is in my mind, so we are going to start there and see where the path takes us. The definition of that problem set though is going to arise from my experiences at Documentum and now for another business-class enterprise type piece of software, IntraLinks.

Most of the software we use on a regular basis is drab. I have few exceptions of this on my system. The exceptions are those that are usually clearly outside the corporate sphere: Instant Messaging Clients, Photo/Media Organizing Tools, Games, Media Playing/Viewing. The exception to that are the interfaces developed by Macromedia, which you may or may not like, but must agree fall out of the norm for productivity software, even compared to that in the same arena by its former competitor, future owner, Adobe—hopefully Adobe is attempting to change it’s own aesthetic as well. In Microsoft Office 2003 there was a drastic change in visual look & feel and overall aesthetics. I would say however, that they almost went too far.

When I was at Documentum I was working on a re-design of the web-based client platform and some of its product lines. One of the directives from on high was that the product should be “more webby” in its look and feel. Forgetting about the vagueness of the directive for a moment, there is real substance worth of analyzing here. This exemplifies a trend I have noticed that many people have not considered (at least in my circles) as a real effect of the boom of Internet. People’s expectations regarding aesthetics have changed. Many—at least this manager, and I know I fall for this—are expecting more of the lively type of visual design that they experience every day on the web. When asked to show me interfaces that demonstrated “webby”, I was pointed to a host of media players and sites dealing with media.

In the past a lot of consumer software aesthetics were being pushed by business side expectations, but the web being more ubiquitous than the corporate experience appears to be turning this around, so that these aesthetics are becoming much more valuable.

I find this all well and good for the visual side, but I find that it doesn’t quite correlate to the other layers of the design of business class applications. These designs are quite distracting indeed and there needs to be thought as to how these design decisions do more to harm the productivity requirements of these tools than to help them. Now, I’m not suggesting that usability and visual design are in contradiction. No way! What i am suggesting though is that there are aesthetic choices beyond the visual that need to be in balance with the visual aesthetic to create a more harmonious feel.

The clearest example I can think of is, the creation of an e-greeting. Imagine a beautiful spring time card, w/ bunny rabbits, greens, blues, and an assortment of flowering colors. A very warm and friendly type image indeed, right. But what if the copy on the card said, “You looser, get your head out of the sand, and get your lazy butt back to work”? Obviously, there is dissonance between the two aesthetics—visual and linguistic. Now, in art, dissonance is used to create a message; however, within productivity tools (and just generally when trying to create a positive brand) dissonance is seen as a negative distraction not just of the brand, but of the user’s ability to concentrate and fulfill prescribed and desired tasks.

At the same time I feel that the directive mentioned above—make it “webby”—is another less stark form of dissonance. A productivity tool, while not required to be boring, is not usually the same type of excitement or engagement as going to a sporting event or musical concert. But the request for “webby” does bring up those types of visuals. I mean, it is a file management system and workflow engine we are talking about here, right?

Basically, what I’m thinking here is that, while we can do better than your standard OS based application, it would be an aesthetic dissonance to bring together too much visual stimuli with your standard application. That being said, “engagement” is still an important idea in any visual or aesthetic problem set, and finding the right balance is the very challenge I believe I’m describing.

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  • http://www.apples-to-oranges.com Ryan Nichols

    I think, as in many cases, you have to roll back to the overall product goal to see how aesthetics, or engagement, fits in.

    As a for instance, a directive such as “make it more webby” I would see as a symptom statement, and I’d need to dig in to find the underlying goal behind it. Turning it into a goal statement such as “we want people using the application to feel familiar with it, as though it were part of their everyday online experiences.” Now that’s a statement that aesthetics can answer. Aesthetics, visual design more specifically, is about communicating that message.

    The second big factor in the example is it’s an application. As a daily use tool, it needs to have less of an emotional response as it does a functional one. In other words people need to rationally understand the screen and what to do, vs. emotionally connect with the brand or product.

    The phrase ‘too much visual stimuli’ to me simply means bad design. Bad design in the sense that the goal of the product was not considered, and ‘over-engagement’ was used and distracted from rationally understanding the interaction required on the screen. Perhaps in a sense you use the most emotional and visual branding to the point that the required interaction of the screen is understandable?

    I certainly agree that ease of which we could brand online materials vs. desktop ones, left people with a higher expectation when it comes to engagement. Now anything that doesn’t evolve to meet that expectation, online ro off-line would increasingly give a sense of bland, old, outdated or unpolished.


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