Re: Please Make Me Think! Potential Dangers in Usability Culture §

I just read Andrei Herasimchuk’s latest entry “Please make me think! Potential dangers in usability culture” and I felt it my duty to vocalize my thoughts on it all. I’m not sure that I will provide a decent summary of the article here, but more of a response at the critical point type post. By that I simply mean I have just finished reading, and wanted to jot down my ideas while they are flowing. Read his article to see what I’m responding too.

Continuing in that regard, this post is more for my own personal use as Andrei is an Interface Designer, an entity within my chosen profession, so I will use this blog from time to time to codify my knowledge and opinion on some thesis, but, as always, do feel free to shed your 2 cents.

“We make things so easy to use, do, digest and process these days that we’re faking out Darwin and cheating Mother Nature, getting what we want regardless of the cost to ourselves or the planet…”

-Andrei Herasimchuk, Design by Fire

Before the Discussion

This thought process behind usability has never really occured to me. I have thought in the past that Design and Usability should always go hand in hand, but to the extent that Andrei points out is quite interesting. Indeed this question is more than I can answer for sure now, naturally without much experience in design and still learning the fundamentals. But it seems to me an interesting one to grapel with early on.

When Andrei posed this thesis question in his introduction: “Should you, as a designer, be bound by some ethical mantra to make your work deeper, more thoughtful and complex, not aimed for the lowest common denominator of your user base?” My instinctual first thought was “yes, but to an extent.” And instantaneously my response lead to the question, of course, but what extent?

From a product stand point I can easily see the virtue in creating something that is as simple as possible to use. But, again, to what extent? Clearly that virtue can only go so far before desire for further functionality destroys the entire simplistic ideal. And so at this point I am forced to wonder in which order indeed a product should be designed. Should something be looked at first from the standpoint of the “lowest common denominator,” as so many things today are? Or why not set out to design for people who are actually going to use time and thought to utilize the entire functionality of the item in which I have already invested so much of my own time and thought to conceive and design?

But if one sets off to design for the latter scenerio, then how does the former come into play, and to what extent? How simple does something need to be to apply to the lowest common denominator without negatively affecting the experience of the latter typed individual?

And then I must re-evaluate the question, should there be an ethical obligation, as Andrei asks, for a designer to design depth into simplicity? I will pause on a response for now…

Post Discussion

The thing I enjoy the most about Design by Fire is that Andrei posts most entries as discussion starters. And so I have completed the path of my own thoughts based simply on Andrei’s starter, and am no closer to a legitimate conclusion than when I began. Perhaps reading the comments from others in design can help me to field this question?

The typical response has been similar to mine, there needs to be a balance. But at one point someone brought in the difference in his examples, and helps to further categorize how that balance can be implemented. Cars and shopping for food are tools (important aside: shopping for food is a tool only if done purely for nourishment however, culinary “art” is not a tool, but falls into the following category), movies and news are cultural items, and therefore should be treated differently. The context follows: tools should be simple, while cultural and experiential items should obviously have depth. Another before said that depth belongs to art, not necessarily design which is mostly about utility and function.

“I think that we, as a civilization, lost the taste for the intellect and that’s just awful. Think is what defines us, and as much as we delegate it, avoid it and so on, we are closer to Newspeak than ever.”

I cannot agree more with this statement by one commenter. Newspeak, of course, refers to speaking in sound bites; simple captions to grab attention, keywords: simple and attention. Her His response was so good, in fact, I will quote it more here:

“User who think (or are made to think) are more productive and creative, in the sense that repetitive mindless tasks are ok to be void of any requirements concerning reason from the part of the user, but certain tasks ought to require the user to be intellectually stimulated.

Do we want out [sic] users to be actively thinking about what they are doing or do we want to keep them in a sort of a haze state when they click next until the wizard says “Finish”?”

I think that I am forced to agree along these lines. It seems that if one is on the path toward design in the first place, then problem solving and ease of use will be givens in the overall result of whatever it is that is being designed. I think that there is a way to keep on the fundamental path of design, while at the same time not sacrificing to the “lowest common denominator.”

So, perhaps, I haven’t changed my thoughts at all on this. My original gut response was the affirmative to an extent, and now it remains unaltered, or does it? I think actually it has changed, because I will no longer think in regard to the “to an extent” portion of the response. It is far more important to design with an eye for thinking and interaction, and I think that, if done gracefully, forcing intellectual stimulation upon the user will leave them more rewarded, and more interested in the application of my design, whatever it may be.

Specifically with regard to Interface Design, I think too much is done now without regard for usability to any great extent. Still today, from web sites to operating systems, there is far too much complexity and complication in the way of the user. By applying fundamental rules of Design to form reasonable functionality and Usability, I think the need to sacrifice for the desired simplicity will shrink exponentially.

Make It a Discussion

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