Is Design an Objective Pursuit?
So you and I are hearing different stories about Apple. My sources
however are a bit out of date so I'll defer to yours. Either way, I
think we can agree that the determining factor in Apple's success is
the creative vision and leadership of Mr. Jobs.
As for visual design, while I agree that it is generally equated with
style, that doesn't mean it has to be. It is up to us as a community to
educate our clients and consumers about the real value and meaning of
design. I would argue that if the CEO doesn't like blue you've failed
to adequately explain the problem and solution to them. If they still
don't like blue, you'd be better off finding another CEO *^)
As for the subjective/objective thing, I was wondering if you believe
in objective standards of beauty. Do you believe for example, that
there is something objective and universally beautiful about a Mozart
symphony, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a Van Gogh painting? Or do you
believe that all taste is relative and that we've simply made a
cultural agreement about our "great works"? Put another way, do you
think that an individual's sense of taste and understanding of beauty
is enhanced by repeated exposure and understanding of art or do you
believe that the development of aesthetic sensibilities is random? And
if it's not random, doesn't the fact that we've come to agree on a
standard collection of great works evidence of objective standards of
Bob Baxley :: Design for Interaction
On Jan 29, 2004, at 10:52 AM, Todd R.Warfel wrote:
> Thanks for your insightful retort. I would agree that Google is hardly
> a UI masterpiece from a visual design perspective, which is precisely
> why I prefaced my statement with "'work' well." Google works. And from
> an interface and interaction perspective, it's a success. Could it
> have a better visual design that is more appealing? I don't think any
> of us would argue against that.
> On Apple - from what I have read, they dissolved their UE group.
> However, they still perform focus groups and user testing on their
> applications. I've had direct conversations with some of their leads
> on several of the applications mentioned in my post. So, while it
> might seem like a tyrannical run, it in fact is not. Yes, Jobs has
> heavy influence, he is after all the captain of the ship. But I can
> assure you that the designs are not all based on and validated by his
> personal opinions. There is real user research and validation going
> Whether we like it or not, visual design is typically equated to
> style. Which is why it is typically considered subjective. There are
> elements, which can be tested, like the size of icons. That you are
> correct in. However, items like colour, which tends to be a
> significant driver in visual design, are subjective. I won't debate
> that colour theory is valid, I'm a firm believer in it. But at the end
> of the day, if the CEO hates blue, then you find another colour. That
> is why I say it becomes subjective.
> That's not to say the IA and interaction design cannot be subjective,
> as they can be, technically. However, this is less of an issue for
> these disciplines, as we have reliable, accepted methods for testing
> and measuring these.
> On Jan 29, 2004, at 1:34 PM, Bob Baxley wrote:
>> A few retorts to one of your recent messages.
>> You said...
>> --- snip --
>> Perfectly, I can't really think of many. That "work" well, I can
>> think of dozens. Just a couple: the automobile, my Asco washer and
>> dryer, the wrist watch, Google, Apple's Mail application, iTunes,
>> iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie, etc.
>> -- end snip --
>> Although I could take issue with the automobile and the wrist watch
>> examples, I'll leave those for another day. As for Google, it's
>> hardly a UI masterpiece so much as it's simply a more effective
>> search engine. I'd put it more on par with Walmart, McDonalds, and
>> Dell. Successful to be sure, but more in spite of design than because
>> of it.
>> Which brings us to your last 5 examples, all of which are from Apple.
>> The notable thing about the work coming out of Apple right now is
>> that every last pixel, click, screw, and cable is reviewed, examined,
>> and decided on by a single individual: Steve Jobs. Not unlike the
>> Lord of Rings trilogy, what you are seeing from Apple is the
>> large-scale expression of one man's tyrannical, dictatorial,
>> exceptional taste. To my knowledge, Apple has closed their usability
>> labs and does not perform focus groups for product concepts. Steve
>> and the designers that work for him are following their own vision
>> and bringing that to fruition in the same way as a novelist and
>> Clearly not a reproducible method for most organizations but
>> definitely a data point that multi-disciplined committees (er, I mean
>> teams) do not necessarily trump the efforts of talented individuals.
>> Later you said...
>> -- snip --
>> Visual design is much more subjective than interaction and IA.
>> Interaction and IA can be tested, proved, etc. Visual design is much
>> more difficult to (dis)prove, since it is so subjective.
>> -- end snip --
>> I definitely take exception to this statement on two fronts. First,
>> visual design is NOT subjective -- unless it's decoration, in which
>> case it's not design. Design as a discipline and a grand tradition,
>> is unimpeachably a practice of analytical problem solving. Visual
>> design, if it is to be called design, has to solve a stated and
>> understood communication problem. For example, Paul Rand's original
>> UPS logo successfully communicated meaning about the company and
>> their purpose. Compare that to their new logo which is little more
>> than a meaningless shape, a fashion statement, a multi-million dollar
>> junk of eye candy that's likely to be replaced as soon as the
>> executives grow tired of it.
>> Any time you hear someone evaluate a design by using the phrase, "I
>> don't like..." you can be assured that you have left the realm of
>> design and entered the transient, commoditized, and soon to be
>> off-shored, world of style and fashion.
>> Similarly, I would argue that the belief that IA and interaction
>> design solutions can be "proven" is one of the greatest lies and
>> liabilities ever foisted upon the design profession. While I'm a
>> great advocate of validating solutions with actual users, I also know
>> that there is a lot of nuance and subtlety to those designs that can
>> never be effectively tested or evaluated. The vast majority of
>> usability tests are performed on users who are seeing the product or
>> a particular piece of functionality for the first time. As a result,
>> those tests are really about the discoverability and learnability of
>> the design. For some products, perhaps even most products, those two
>> dimensions of the design are indeed the most important. However, for
>> a host of other products, Photoshop for example, the more important
>> dimension is efficiency of use, a dimension that I've never seen
>> At the end of the day I'd put it like this: design is a discipline
>> devoted to analytical problem solving. The degree to which a design
>> is successful is the degree to which it solves a stated and
>> understood problem. Similarly, the value of an individual designer is
>> determined by their ability to successfully solve such problems in a
>> repeatable, predictable, and observable manner.
>> Not to preach too loud but... Design is not guesswork. Design is not
>> magic. And design is not subjective.
>> Finally, thanks for sending out the summary. A nice job of thinning
>> the underbrush and improving our view of the trees.
>> Bob Baxley :: Design for Interaction
>> design :: www.baxleydesign.com
>> blog :: www.drowninginthecurrent.com
>> On Jan 29, 2004, at 7:22 AM, Todd R.Warfel wrote:
>>> On Jan 29, 2004, at 2:09 AM, Andrei Herasimchuk wrote:
>>>> [...] I have yet to see a project succeed on all levels without
>>>> that person. If you know of a project that has, please let me know.
>>> AT&T Wireless eCommerce site. It was done with team of:
>>> (2) Information Architects
>>> (1) Usability Specialist
>>> (4) Visual Designers
>>> (1) Art Director
>>> (1) Creative Director
>>> (10) Developers
>>> A very successful model, which as increased conversion rates,
>>> decreased support costs, decreased acquisition costs, reduced
>>> bail-out rates. The list goes on. And there are more:
>>> the automobile, Nokia's cell phone interface, the original Apple
>>> GUI, etc.
>>>> [...] Too many teams are heavily weighted towards one side of the
>>>> equation, or front loaded with visual people only. Or interaction
>>>> people only. Or information people only. And when this happens, if
>>>> the manager is only experienced in one area, they will implicitly
>>>> or unconciously weight their decisions in favor of what they know.
>>>> Mac OS X is a classic example today where this imbalance is playing
>>>> out. It's a gorgeous looking OS, but it severely lacks in the
>>>> behaviors department. All the interaction people were let go. Jobs
>>>> is pushing eye-candy over function, and what you have now is a
>>>> bunch of pretty looking interface widgets that behave very badly.
>>>> The dock anyone? The new Finder in Panther? The Open dialog? All of
>>>> them are train wrecks.
>>> The dock and finder work. And work well. They're very functional.
>>> Both are great for increasing productivity (allow users to quickly
>>> access regularly used items), keeping users aware of system status
>>> (ability too show how many new mail messages you have), etc. They
>>> each have their pitfalls, as every system and solution does, but
>>> they are by no means a train wreck.
>>> "Train wreck" wreck is a personal opinion. I would be interested in
>>> seeing some evidence that they are "severely lacking in behaviors"
>>> or that they don't function.
>>> I agree they could be improved, as all systems could be. But they're
>>> very functional, productive, and usable.
>>> And if it's the "trash can" isn't in a stable location argument -
>>> please! It's always at the right side of the Dock. We've tested this
>>> "theory" in some work I'm doing here at Cornell and people don't
>>> seem to have a problem with it. They find the trash can just fine.
>>>> But can you honestly tell me when you use Amazon that they have
>>>> their act together across the board? That the visual appearance is
>>>> as up to snuff as their ability to deliver product in more
>>>> personalized forms? That the navigation scheme they use makes any
>>>> bit of sense, and so little that everyone pretty ignores it and
>>>> falls back on the search function? That the manner with which you
>>>> browse items really makes you feel as good as browsing items in the
>>> Different medium than a store, but Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. We've
>>> tested eCommerce sites as well here at Cornell, as well as large
>>> index like Yahoo! And users are able to satisfy your questions
>>> above. Again without a great deal of problems (usability or
>>>> Most of my factual evidence would come from getting into specifics
>>>> about the companies I have worked for, and that would do nothing
>>>> but get me in trouble. Further evidence would come from knowing
>>>> what I know about how many companies operate, and that would not
>>>> make me many friends.
>>> I can respect confidentiality, but that really doesn't help us here.
>>> Are there other non-confidential supporting elements you can
>>>> So instead, I ask you this: How many technology products out there
>>>> are well designed? (I can count the number on one hand.) I mean
>>>> really well designed, that hit all cylinders, cover all bases, and
>>>> hum perfectly?
>>> Perfectly, I can't really think of many. That "work" well, I can
>>> think of dozens. Just a couple: the automobile, my Asco washer and
>>> dryer, the wrist watch, Google, Apple's Mail application, iTunes,
>>> iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie, etc.
>>> But there are far more that fall short: Flash - very powerful, but
>>> could be easier to use. It's gotten much better over the years.
>>> Illustrator - seriously, why don't we have underlined text and
>>> multi-page support with master pages (real multi-page support). Word
>>> - where do I begin?
>>>> The definition of the interface is stated in my article. Given that
>>>> an interface comprises of visual, information and interaction
>>>> design solutions, how does that defy my argument?
>>> American Heritage Dictionary:
>>> in·ter·face n.
>>> 3. Computer Science. a. The point of interaction or
>>> communication between a computer and any other entity, such as a
>>> printer or human operator.
>>> b. The layout of an application's graphic or textual controls in
>>> conjunction with the way the application responds to user
>>> activity: an interface whose icons were hard to remember.
>>> WordNet 1997 © Princeton University
>>> 2: (computer science) a program that controls a display for the user
>>> (usually on a computer monitor) and that allows the user to interact
>>> with the system [syn: user interface]
>>> Both these definitions focus on the visual display element - the
>>> point at which a user interacts with a system. They do not infer
>>> anything in relation to information architecture. WordNet doesn't
>>> include interaction, but rather states that it "allows the user to
>>> interact" with the system. American Heritage infers a relationship
>>> between visual display and the way an application responds to user
>>> activity (interaction design). So, by definition, visual display is
>>> included, interaction has a relationship with, but isn't necessarily
>>> included, and information architecture is not included. That's why I
>>> said that the very definition of interface defies your argument.
>>> It is possible that we need to update the definition, if you are
>>> correct that interface design includes visual display, interaction,
>>> and information architecture. I don't think it does, but if it's
>>> determined that it does, we should update the definitions.
>>>> A very good friend of mine went to Cornell as well in the
>>>> architecture school. His opinion on the matter of
>>>> multi-disciplinary seems to be in line with mine on this subject,
>>>> and a large part of it was due to his experience at school. I'll
>>>> have to ask him for more specifics on his opinion.
>>> I guess this is the part that needs clarification. Are you proposing
>>> a) each unique, yet interdependent discipline have knowledge and
>>> appreciation for the others
>>> b) they are not unique, interdependent disciplines, they are all one
>>> discipline and here's why...
>>> c) something else
>>> I'm in agreement with A, but not B for reasons previously stated. If
>>> it's C, I'd be interested to see...
>>>> I am not suggesting they are one discipline. I said an interface
>>>> designer needs to master all three. I said, "Interface design is
>>>> the larger role, comprised of three smaller categories, areas of
>>>> specialty that we are already familiar with: graphic design,
>>>> information design and interaction design."
>>> It's the master all three that concerns me. Jack of all trades,
>>> master of none. Visual design is much more subjective than
>>> interaction and IA. Interaction and IA can be tested, proved, etc.
>>> Visual design is much more difficult to (dis)prove, since it is so
>>> In the decade or so that I've been doing this, I've come across only
>>> a handful of people who are truly exceptional visual designers,
>>> information architects, and interaction designers all in one
>>> package. I've come across a dozen or so who are truly exceptional at
>>> information architecture and interaction design in one package. I've
>>> come across hundreds of individuals that are truly exceptional
>>> visual designers, truly exceptional information architects, or truly
>>> exceptional interaction designers as individual disciplines.
>>> Possible? Yes. Probable? Not really. I think Cooper explains the
>>> reasoning why rather well - we each have different, yet
>>> interdependent goals. So, our focus is different. Our goals are
>>> different (same high level goal of great product, but different
>>> granular goals).
>>> Todd R. Warfel
>>> User Experience Architect
>>> MessageFirst | making products easier to use
>>> Contact Info
>>> voice: (607) 339-9640
>>> email: twarfel at messagefirst.com
>>> web: www.messagefirst.com
>>> aim: twarfel at mac.com
>>> In theory, theory and practice are the same.
>>> In practice, they are not.
>>> Interaction Design Discussion List
>>> discuss at interactiondesigners.com
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> Todd R. Warfel
> User Experience Architect
> MessageFirst | making products easier to use
> Contact Info
> voice: (607) 339-9640
> email: twarfel at messagefirst.com
> web: www.messagefirst.com
> aim: twarfel at mac.com
> In theory, theory and practice are the same.
> In practice, they are not.
> Interaction Design Discussion List
> discuss at interactiondesigners.com
> to change your options (unsubscribe or set digest):
> Questions: lists at interactiondesigners.com
> Announcement Online List (discussion list members get announcements
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