Don Norman vs The Realities of Web Design?

31 Oct 2011 - 4:10am
3 years ago
46 replies
3544 reads
Vicky Teinaki
2008

Hi all,

I'm not sure if many of you are on the PHD-DESIGN list, but Don Norman recently slammed an educational website to the extent of saying people shouldn't study there:

https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind1110&L=PHD-DESIGN&F=&S=&P=189824

 

Simon Sadler sent out a job announcement for UC Davis (California). I've been advising another UC campus on design, but i didn't realize Davis had a design department so i thought i would check out their web page. http://design.ucdavis.edu/index.html Font Size:  Font size.  Font size. (Gee, you mean soe one is supposed to read the words? Nah.) Wow: believe it or not Davis teaches communication design, but you would never guess it from their website. why do graphics and communication designers love tiny, tiny type? Especially communication designers, who one would have thought would like their stuff to communicate. I have never seen such small type on a website for the main message. There is one good side. Most graphical designers love to use gray letters on a gray background, with small font. At least here we have black on white. (Oh, another good side: maybe this can be my next column for core77.) Moral: Never send anyone to study at UC Davis. That design department doesn't get it.
There's been a whole load of conversation on the list about designers and typography etc, but no one so far has acknowledged just how difficult it is to change a website within a large organisation. (The lead from the programme did reply to say a new one is in the works).I've blogged my thoughts here. http://vickyteinaki.com/blog/don-norman-slams-universitys-design-dept-website-i-call-foulMain point: am I the only one who considers this a consultants-at-their-worst attitude?

Comments

31 Oct 2011 - 8:07am
Adler
2006

Agree very much with Don. One should be thankful that he has devoted
so much time to write detailed emails on this issue on the PHD-DESIGN
list.
Companies' products, including websites, can tell a lot about the
company. And if there is a mismatch, then bad luck for the company.

If more would follow this advice, companies and therefore their
products would be much better.

Adler

PS: my email is registered at ixda list, so why can't I post and had to come to the ixda website to post this comment!?


--
Adler Looks Jorge 蔡鷹達
Interaction Design Consultant, Hong Kong

To fuel our economic growth, we scrape the planet of its resources,
laying waste to more than we build.
Graeme Maxton  http://endofprogress.com

31 Oct 2011 - 8:26am
Ron Perkins
2007

Thanks Adler, my post was rejected too, for insufficient right....Why is that?

Did Don Norman lack diplomatic skills in slamming the UC Davis design site?  Probably.
What are the realities of Web design?  I don't know what that means.

Is a small font a problem in modern Web design?   Does everyone know how to make it larger?  Or to set their default settings so that the page will come up as readable in their browser?
Speaking of browsers, it does not even come up in Safari--(Version 5.1.1 (6534.51.22) that's not good design.
Will that site scale up even if I changed my browser settings?  No, it's a flash page.  You cannot change the font size.  Is this good design?  No  Is it accessible?  No.
Yes, I can zoom in if I have a device that has a touch screen.

Anyone looking at the site will not have inside information that they are about to improve it, so you have to go on what is there now.

So while in my opinion Don Norman may have been undiplomatic, and perhaps he has seen enough cool looking design that was unreadable in his long career to be impatient with it.
But he's right.  You have to question whether the department cares more about looking good or working.   Too often this is the case in the big D Design world.  It should not be that way.  It's not a tradeoff.

He might have said "you should contact the department head of this organization before applying here, and seriously question whether they know how to make design usable or to communicate" instead of slamming them.

IMHO
Ron

Ron Perkins
Principal, Design Perspectives
Web Design and Usability
www.DesignPerspectives.com

31 Oct 2011 - 9:34am
jonkarpoff
2009

I do enterprise level websites for clients from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses and no-profits. I agree with Don. Good visual design is important. Visual organization is key to creating good information pathing. Good typography not only aids in providing better information scent (by speeding up comprehension while scanning the page) but also is critical for conveying the brand attributes of your organization. The site screams old, stodgy and boring. The liquid page design provides no benefits. Why design for a 800x600 screen? Why 2 navbrds? I think Don was rather kind. If this represents the best the visual design group at UC Davis has to offer I'd say go elsewhere. This is not good design from an IA, UX or Brand perspective.

31 Oct 2011 - 10:30am
ekim
2010

I don't have much of an opinion on whether or not Don was being PC about it, but there's a lot o' wrong with that site. We can all agree on that, right?  I'd say thank him for raising the awareness of not only ourselves and the site's designers, but perhaps for the stakeholders which you mention in your blog post.

Eugene

31 Oct 2011 - 10:50am
fj
2010

I certainly do not consider it "consultants at their worst" because he is not their consultant.

Furthemore, his critique is spot on, whether the reason is age or stakeholders. It's still true.

Should someone not go for a design school because their website sucks? I doubt anyone will actually pass based on one line of Norman on a mailing list, so you are giving him too much influence. But if it is not pointed out, it won't change. He may be doing the designs chool a favor in getting the capability to change it.

31 Oct 2011 - 11:29am
Chris Avore
2009

Reckless assumptions much, Don?

I'll be the first to agree the site is straight out of 2004--probably literally since the source code specifies making the site require Flash Player version 6.  But at the same time I would also likely bet the PHDs and faculty aren't sitting down at their desks and building organizational/departmental web sites either (I've worked with a number of higher ed colleges & universities so I have some firsthand experience here). 

And while I also agree that UC Davis isn't putting an accessible, useful front face to its design program, let's not lose sight that there IS A DESIGN PROGRAM to begin with that is separate from the Art department. 

And I would trust other people have more awareness of the quality of the UC system to look past a dated web site. But what about sites that do have clear calls to action, larger fonts to distinguish primacy of content, and sharp, attractive photos? Just google 'online education' and you'll find no shortage of sites that are of questionable reputation ready to offer a degree in whatever you want to pay for, but the hell if I'd NOT consider UC Davis just because of their site. 

We'd have a lot dumber people working in design today if people only went to colleges that reflect Don's opinion of what makes a good site. 

 

 

31 Oct 2011 - 11:48am
Richard Carson
2010

You would figure that someone with a PHD should spell the word "some" correctly. The type being small, might have alot to do with designing for browsers and computer monitors on a global level. Especially since they are using Flash, it implies these needs. I don't think the school's usage for using small type should be the basis for designers attending this school. It actually displays fine on my computer, plus i can zoom in and out of text on my browser. Rather choosing the right school goes way beyond that box. It's a little disappointing for hear Don knock on Graphic and communication designers choice of fonts within his generalization of them. If not for them, we wouldn't have the elegant type that you see before you on the screen of the computer to begin with. 

31 Oct 2011 - 1:42pm
Mary Brodie
2008

 

I have to admit - I agree with Don as well. The site is dated in it's
approach (unless it is intended to be that way - which has many

executional problems).

But to go back to Vicky's post and her perspective, one aspect I'd like to
add to this is the influence of the Design Department on the rest of the
university at this location for getting a site redesigned. At times,
organizations can't get changes completed at their sites for various
reasons - I get that and have experienced that with clients frequently.
For all we know, the Design Department could, in fact, hate their current
Web presence, but don’t have the resources to get it updated. There are 2

ways to look at this:

--The department needs to find more money for this activity<br>
--The department doesn't have enough influence internally to get the job
done somehow

 

The second perspective goes back to Don's point about the Design program.
If internally, the Design Department is not respected enough to get a
rocking site launched (and influence other department sites internally),
then you have to wonder about how the university perceives them. Often a
group is able to get things done in a larger organization because it has a
lot of influence and respect. And influence, in some ways, is earned and
follows results.

 

The site raises a lot of questions about the department and what it's all
about. Maybe the members of that department will take notice of all of our
assumptions about them and correct them with a redesign (at least we hope).

 

31 Oct 2011 - 1:54pm
Vicky Teinaki
2008

One point I should add that isn't clear from my commentary here, the people from the site did respond (if you're here as well, hi!): 

https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=PHD-DESIGN;ccda4a75.1110

Hello Don -- Fair -- if rather harsh! -- call. We actually are in the process of changing our website.
('Process of changing a website'… I'm sure we all know that that process can take a long time!) I still feel that it was worth highlighting the discussion though.
31 Oct 2011 - 3:45pm
penguinstorm
2005

Institutional laziness does not excuse blatantly bad design.

On the other hand I often find commentary from the Nielsen-Norman group completely ignores commercial realities and institution memory.  While I often wish the world would as well, the reality is that design--and interaction design is just one form of that--is a way for companies to distinguish themselves from one another.

An invididual element that 's poorly designed (in some cases to create that distinction) does not necessarily condemn the entire design if it's accomplishing its goals.

31 Oct 2011 - 3:45pm
penguinstorm
2005

Institutional laziness does not excuse blatantly bad design.

On the other hand I often find commentary from the Nielsen-Norman group completely ignores commercial realities and institution memory.  While I often wish the world would as well, the reality is that design--and interaction design is just one form of that--is a way for companies to distinguish themselves from one another.

An invididual element that 's poorly designed (in some cases to create that distinction) does not necessarily condemn the entire design if it's accomplishing its goals.

31 Oct 2011 - 7:54pm
Jared M. Spool
2003

I often wonder what it must be like to be on the receiving end of our "wrath" when we decide to go after a "bad design."

What would it be like if Don Norman or any of the thought leaders in our field went after one of our designs, whether they were right or not?

Do we do our field a disservice when we attack without data or evidence to support, based on our own opinions? After all, the designer was working from their own best judgement. Who really are any of us to berate their best judgement? Can we really say that we're that perfect?

Just wonderin'...

1 Nov 2011 - 1:20pm
ekim
2010

I suppose I've been on the receiving end a couple times.

There's the non-malicious one where a prominent UX leader described one of the site's I worked on as "busy" within his presentation.  It was an audience of a couple hundred and I did feel myself getting a little flush with embarrassment (even though no one knew who I was), but like any presentation you have to come up with examples to illustrate your points, right?  S'ok, I understand.  Besides, it WAS busy and given our directives there was only so much our design team could do to work around that (think executives wanting to retain legacy content mixed with tons of advertising--an explosive combination).

On the other end of the scale, I read a pretty scathing review via Twitter concerning another site I was working on.  This time it was from a UX peer who was fairly active in the social sphere who proceeded to say (in 120 characters or less) that she counted x number of usability problems and that our beta product was destined to fail.  It wasn't addressed to me directly, but I was proactive about it and tweeted back to her asking what those problems were.  She replied and proceeded to tell me that she'd be happy to share them at her standard rate of $200/hr.  What the...

It stung a little bit, but hey, I used it as motivation to do better work.  Plus, only my team and I knew the challenges and hurdles that we had to deal with so I took their comments with a grain of salt.  Did these folks purposely mean to hurt me?  No, I don't think so, although I suppose you could say they might've profited at my expense (ie. to teach others and to stroke one's ego).  It happens.

So to answer your question, no, I don't believe it's a disservice.  I don't feel anyone's saying they're perfect and I believe most of us are capable of separating the grain from the chaff (even when it involves thought leaders).  Don's just pointing out the irony here: a design school has a poorly designed website.  And I get it.

But a question for you: Are you having second thoughts about berating the airline industry?  Don't think I've seen a tweet about that in awhile.  ;)

31 Oct 2011 - 8:31pm
mdostert
2010

rolls eyes at Norman

I liked the web site. The font size was small, but maybe it is my eyes since I am getting to that age. I am sure Norman is much older than I am and may simply have failing eyes, hence the small font size bothered him. However, He nor I are the intended audience. 

He could have been kiinder in his critique, much like most of us. 

I often used to think that a web site was representative of the quality of the institution but have learned that often places do not take the advice they are teaching and there is massive politics involved. It is never a simple case.  

Cheers

31 Oct 2011 - 9:05pm
Queen Catherine
2009

@Jared Spool

Interesting point - but I think most of us don't tend to "go after" a design as much as provide a critique (or Christ I hope so!).

Of critiqueing is an art in itself. 

If we're just basing our comments on our own opions, it's a little like saying "Make the logo bigger...just cause".

That said, if a designer can't justify every design decision made based on research - bringing it to real users' needs - then I suppose that's the same thing - self-indulgent design?

What can I say - everyone's got an opinion and loves to be heard :)

 

1 Nov 2011 - 6:28am
Jared M. Spool
2003

@Queen Catherine

I've been studying effective critique technique for the last year and one of the things I've learned is that it works best when it's a collaboration between the critics and the designer. The designer gets to present their work, including discussing their intention behind the decisions they made. (You can read more about this in a post I wrote the other day: Moving Beyond Critical Review to Critique - http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2011/10/27/moving-from-critical-review-to-critique/ )

When we do these "unsolicited critiques", where do we give the designer a chance to discuss what their intention was? Where do we get a chance to talk about if their design met their intention?

In my opinion, it's unprofessional to give a critique any other way. Are you advocating unprofessional critique techniques?

Yes, everyone has an opinion and wants to be heard. Does that mean we, as a profession, should advocate the propogation of random opinions to give everyone a voice, even if it diminshes the outside respect of the field?

Jared

1 Nov 2011 - 7:52am
penguinstorm
2005

Woah...wait..wait..you're suggesting that the people who *do* things should be given a chance to *explain why they did it.* No...no...that's just wrong.

Well said, Jared. Well said.

There are times when a right to critique exists and there may be aspects that can be critqued without input. I'm very critical of our local ferry monopoly and the way they relate to customers, and I'm wriiting a critique of their web site in that context. I'm not commenting on color choices, typeface choices or other subjective matter which may be beyond my purview. There are limits to which you can critique anonymously.

1 Nov 2011 - 8:06am
Adrian Howard
2005

On 1 Nov 2011, at 13:46, Jared M. Spool wrote: [snip] > When we do these "unsolicited critiques", where do we give the designer a chance to discuss what their intention was? Where do we get a chance to talk about if their design met their intention? > > In my opinion, it's unprofessional to give a critique any other way. Are you advocating unprofessional critique techniques? [snip]

This reminds me of one of the most interesting & impressive items I ever saw in a designers portfolio.

The visuals and workflows were - to put it bluntly - f**king ugly. Nobody would look at it and say it was a wonderful piece of design in the abstract.

The story behind it though... the constraints that she had to deal with, the (radical) improvements she had managed to push through compared to the previous system, the way that she had communicated the issues to management and the product development team, the obvious changes in mindset she had left the organisation with.

Awesome.

Judged with no context the output was "bad design". With the context it was the output of a bloody excellent designer doing superb work under huge constraints.

Cheers,

Adrian

1 Nov 2011 - 9:59am
ambroselittle
2008

Hear hear! On both your comments, Jared.

I tried to email something similar, though less eloquent, but the wonderful design of this email system is such that it prevented me for now apparent reason (I am told by the IxDA support to use the Web instead). Summary:

Designers should be embarrassed of themselves posting public critical reviews without taking the time to understand (as fully as they can) the constraints that the designers (of the design in question) were under. Seems far more common to me that factors that designers have little control over are often the cause for making good designs go kablooey. We should all know this and be more reticent.

-a

1 Nov 2011 - 7:34am
dom.latham
2010

I asked my wife, who professionally writes copy, to have a look at Don Norman's critique. She pointed out at least 8 basic errors in the style and formatting. I advise anybody who wants to create a website with written copy in it to avoid his texts.

1 Nov 2011 - 7:34am
dennis_breen
2010

A few observations:

I don't believe Don was making a detailed critique. He was doing a long-form version of what we see designers do on Twitter all the time - complaining about poor design choices. Let he/she who has never written a #FAIL tweet cast the first stone. If we think Don's approach (rather than his content) was wrong, we should apply the same yardstick to ourselves.

Don is suggesting that design schools have an obligation to do good design. Good design means more than looks. Don has fought the fight to elevate design above surface considerations for a long time. If design schools don't understand and promote this, they are doing a disservice to the entire field.  "Eat your own dog food", etc.

Was Don's rant an effective way to help UC Davis make things better? No. Was it intended as such? I seriously doubt it. 

Should Don have done this? No. Not only is it rude, it risks turning critique into something as superficial as the surface design he's complaining about. As if my outrage should be your to-do list. That also doesn't further our cause. But let's be constructive in our critique of the critique. Commenting on his writing style or how old his eyes are is just more venomous opinion. 

Don is a respected elder in our field. He has worked long and hard to make design more than an afterthought. I respect his work. But I'd like to see him (and others) lead by example and show the community how to critique effectively and behave professionally. Because I, for one, am tired of the cheap and easy #FAIL approach. 

1 Nov 2011 - 10:07am
ambroselittle
2008

Those coming to defense of DN in this thread remind me of those defending RMS in this one: 

http://edward.oconnor.cx/2005/04/rms 

I mean, really?  I'm not saying it's quite as distasteful, but there are definitely similiarities.

1 Nov 2011 - 10:28am
OliveColored
2011

The problem isn't the size of the font, it's the fact that it is an image that was obviously created in photoshop that was very poorly optimized for web viewing. I LOVE small font, but I've run into the same problem many times. When using a font that ins't web safe, you have to do it through an imported .jpeg and small font often comes out blurry. The only real solution I've found is to make it bigger. I'm surprised something like that would even make it through the editing process.

I don't think the website is THAT bad. In fact, the pages beyond the cheesey flash HP are actually pretty good. Like this page:

http://design.ucdavis.edu/about/index.html

 

1 Nov 2011 - 2:53pm
sensel
2010

The problem is more complex. The UC system is different from the Cal State system in California. Different budgets and origins. For design, the Cal State system generally have better programs. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, for instance. The UC is more the "fine art", law, medicine, very broad liberal arts research universities. Generally, the Cal State campuses are more "applied" arts, like architecture and design. Although, that is changing as they also become more research and liberal arts in nature. There are exceptions but generally, the design area is usually found in the art department at a UC and that department is controled by tenured and *always* majority fine art and art history professors. They do no get design at all and, sadly, often have a very negative view of it. But students and alumni know the importance of design now more than ever, the fine art faculty cannot ignore it. They reluctantly OK adding one or two lines of faculty, often not tenured, to cover design. Which is also often blended with more of a fine art view of what design is (more crafts or a kind of digital contemporary fine art approach). Instead of hiring a designer (graphic design, industrial design, or a person with a digital media design background) they hire a fine artist who dables in web sites but calls themselves a designer. The mess, both in the class and out, then ensues.

I had a friend who was an award winning fine artist at a state university art program (not CA). He had a BFA and MFA in fine art doing printmaking and sculpture. Excellent artist. Inexplicably, he called me some years ago, after teaching fine art for a decade, to ask about books on typography. It turns out he decided (or his colleagues did) that he would "start" a design program. Not having any experience or training at all in graphic design or any design field. Well, he did, and he hired more faculty over the years due to student demand to get degrees in design (not because he made a suddenly great design program!) Those new "design" professors he hired; fine artists. 

I could go on with many more stories I have heard or witnessed of a majority fine art and art history faculty at universities that have squashed or messed up design programs by keeping them underfunded, poorly staffed, or in poor facilities. For every great design program, teaching various areas of design, at any school, there are dozens of starving, poorly staffed programs all around the U.S.

The irony is that the design programs keep the fine art programs alive. Many of the best students in fine art classes are the design students. That situation would be found typically in programs that require a portfolio entry for the design program and/or a review in 2nd or 3rd year of student progress. Programs that let any student enter a program and that have no design foundation program the first year (undergrad) and no review of work, are the ones to avoid. Also be sure the majority of faculty have experience as professional designers, art directors or ID/arch or other type of designer and/or have 5 or more years teaching design. The best design programs to apply to are the hardest to get into and the hardest to stay in. Be sure it is a design major and not an emphasis. The distinction is critical. That it is a BFA and not a BA. (There are some Bachelors of Graphic Design too but very rare. BArch for arch.) That they have a general portfolio entrance into the art/design school. They should have a foundation program the first year with design focus for design majors. A portfolio review to enter the design program around the later part of the first year. A review of design majors class work in Junior year. If one of these is missing from a program - it should be the Freshman portfolio entrance requirement. That is almost always just a bunch of high school art junk and tells the design facutly nothing (but does point out the worst and the very best of the applicants - with the majority in the middle and then accepted more on the full university entrance requirements and placed accordingly). But many great designers study design after 1-3 years as engineering majors, biology majors, journalism majors, etc. Many young people simply do not know what design is! College helps them learn more about majors when they meet and befriend other majors in dorms, greeks, and classes and see what the design students actually do.

This post is already too long but, the problem is partly historical and very much a political struggle of the fine art world versus what they see as the comercially driven field of design (not worthy of study, is what they would say and have said to my students over the years!) Ironically, fine art has become much more than ever about money and galleries and rich buyers while design has become more engaged with solving complex problems for people of all backgrounds while also providing elegent visual and pysical solutions for all of us to enjoy. Art is just about being a famous artist and selling it to rich people.

MFA design programs are in less trouble but, many of the same problems exist mostly at the research univeristies, like the UC. Buyer beware when applying to any design program for a BFA or MFA. Do your research and if it smells bad, it probably is. Look for the best experienced faculty, small class sizes, the reviews while you are a student mentioned above, and it should look right when you visit it. If it looks dated, reconsider. But don't let old buildings or poor equipment and labs fool you. Many top programs require students to buy a Mac in the second year; usually no need while freshman with lots of hands on and general liberal arts courses - use the on campus labs for papers, etc. Then get a super fast loaded machine for Fall of your Sophomore year.

1 Nov 2011 - 3:28pm
msweeny
2006

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

Unsolicited criticism is all too often based on personal dogma (and that is okay in my book as long as acknowledged) accompanied by a lack of information about the tradeoffs inherent in any project. Perhaps the stakeholders had issues that controlled the outcome? Thirdly, as our medium is not carved in stone, nor should our methods. What is vile today could be a common practice in 10 years. How often has heresy become the norm throughout history?

1 Nov 2011 - 3:29pm
msweeny
2006

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Unsolicited criticism is all too often based on personal dogma (OK in my book as long as acknowledged) accompanied by a lack of information about the tradeoffs inherent in any project. Perhaps the stakeholders had issues that controlled the outcome? Thirdly, as our medium is not carved in stone, nor should our methods. What is vile today could be a common practice in 10 years. How often has heresy become the norm throughout history?

1 Nov 2011 - 4:26pm
usabilitycounts
2008

 

I wrote a whole blog article about this...

Six Things User Experience Designers Forget When They Criticize Websites

http://www.usabilitycounts.com/2011/05/29/six-things-user-experience-designers-forget-when-they-criticize-websites/

I'm working on an enterprise system where we are trying to improve some of the legacy UI issues, and it's frustrating. I'm working on a team where we are trying to improve what we have as quickly as possible, and many times I try to reach out about usability issues that we see reported on Twitter. All I want to do is have the conversation so I can ask how they would make it better,

There are so many issues people don't consider when they decide to post a critique.  I think it's irresponsible sometimes for UX Designers to criticize designs publicly when all it takes is a single email to get the perspective of the designer who worked on the site. There might be inside knowledge of those constraints.

This blog post also illustrates some of the constraints.

http://www.dustincurtis.com/dear_dustin_curtis.html

 

1 Nov 2011 - 5:24pm
Queen Catherine
2009

@jared

EEKS! 

-Are you advocating unprofessional critique techniques?

HELL NO!

I believe I have been deeply misunderstood... 

What I was trying to say (in my somewhat notes to self fashion) was this:

Designers need to be able to tell the story behind their design - relating it to real people's real needs, and also how they arrived here. This is something I am constantly shocked at with designers, and try to instil in them. Don't just show me a design, tell me why it is the way it is. Otherwise, friends, you may be torn apart in those who "go after" a design.... (which is what I meant by "everyone's got an opinion and loves to be heard").

On the flip side, those who critique need to understand the story, and justify their comments with more than subjective criticism.

Hope that makes more sense... 

1 Nov 2011 - 10:06pm
Christine Boese
2006

Odd, I was blocked from replying to this from discuss@ixda.org . That's never happened before.

Anyway, here's what I wrote:

On Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 10:03 PM, Jared M. Spool <jspool@uie.com> wrote:
I often wonder what it must be like to be on the receiving end of our "wrath" when we decide to go after a "bad design."

What would it be like if Don Norman or any of the thought leaders in our field went after one of our designs, whether they were right or not?

Do we do our field a disservice when we attack without data or evidence to support, based on our own opinions? After all, the designer was working from their own best judgement. Who really are any of us to berate their best judgement? Can we really say that we're that perfect?

Just wonderin'...


Prolly be the same sort of thing that playwrights and novelists and others who get journalistically written up as part of "fair comment and criticism" would be. (architects too)

Not a bad thing to be exposed to, imho.

OTOH, having logged a lot of years in academia, I can tell you it is a culture of neglected web sites. You don't get tenure for keeping service sites up to date. Not even course catalog sites, to be honest. Students end up getting the job, with the great idea that they can do them as "design class projects" for whatever year the project gets taken up.

Students come, students go. Sites get lost when they leave. Some students (hell, some grad assistants) do good work, write good code, comment it out, whatnot, and some don't (I had one graduate assistant once who came in drunk for his hours, and the damage he did to updates to the proprietary code of a comprehensive site I'd hired him to maintain took me YEARS to discover! All kinds of sloppiness baked deep in, stuff even validators couldn't get through to diagnose). So you're trying to jam on publications for tenure, and your assigned grad students are a bit hit and miss, but the head of graduate studies says we gotta keep 'em to keep our numbers up...

And you know, academia is gonna be the next thing like newspapers, right? Such a hollowed-out house of cards (great facade, tho! Administrators love it!) that universities will be lucky if they ever recover from the hit this past recession dealt them. Bloated tuitions, thinly staffed departments, adjuncts and grad students doing the bulk of the teaching (more than 70%), all of them besieged by helicopter parents of precious darlings contesting every grade below a B, even if they rarely showed up and plagiarized most of their work.

Do I paint a grim picture? Ask the people in the California state university system, in particular. Was a time I painted a grim picture of what was happening to newspapers, but few wanted to hear that story in the late 80s and early 90s. Now the books detail the real damage that was done, behind the scenes, during that heyday of 30% profit margins and rampant layoffs.

But back to the graveyard of neglected academic web sites, built largely with transient student labor. Two things you can be certain of:

1. The code is gonna be iffy. The kids are still learning, and some students are better than others, admissions and work ethics being what they are. No matter how well you try to teach and grade their work.

2. The faculty have no clue the dead code lying around uncommented and unknown, still served on the web who-knows-where. I can still pull up some deep server archives of web work I did back in 94-95 while in grad school. I think the backdoor password I left is still there too, not that I use it for anything. The faculty who can read or improve it may not know about it, or (and this is far more likely), the work was fostered off on the students by a faculty member who was teaching design aesthetics or interaction theory or whatever, but who perhaps never actually touched code or even knew the arcana of accessing the server. The overworked and stressed professor would have evaluated the output, the served site, not how it was constructed, as part of a heavy grading load.

Many times, faculty who take up "dept. service" web projects aren't the ones teaching the "sexy" interaction design or IA courses, or running the great usability projects through their corporate grant-funded labs. They're the other faculty, who feel a little left out and over their heads, working hard on their research and trying to retool for a digital world at the same time, who often inherit those department "service" sites. For those who already have tenure, it can look like they are still professionally active, even if not as active as in their hungry, tenure-track days. And they have good hearts and intentions, are willing volunteers, ready to give it a shot, bless 'em!

It's a thankless job, the department service site. It is an important door for recruitment, but it is rare that anyone other than students do any of that work. Grad students have moved on to sexier projects. Undergrads, or even underclassmen, draw this straw.

Chris

3 Nov 2011 - 3:50pm
Erik Johnson
2009

I am surprised to see so many comments in favor of not critiquing a user interface without sufficient information about the constraints the designer was under.  Users - the ones we advocate for - are not concerned with said constraints when using these sites/applications.

We have to allow for some room to critique a design without knowing anything of its constraints, etc.  One example of this is a simple heuristic review, which is basically a critique of a design's most basic issues based on sound evidenced guidelines arrived at after many years of finding out what works and what doesn't.  The UCDavis site breaks many of these principles and results in a site that's hard to read and use for reasons which - as far as I am concerned as a user - don't matter.

Designers need to be a little more thick-skinned when it comes to critiques in general.  I myself am included in this statement.  The designers of the IXDA site are as well, as I remember the rough period when this site was redesigned... ;)  We have to NEVER take it personally and move on, realizing the points brought up are ones which will make your site/application more successful.  

Who is Don Norman (or any of us) to make an ill-informed critique of a site?  He's a designer who cares about the usefulness of things, like the rest of us.  Did he need to add the "...you shouldn't go to school there..." comment?  No.  But come on - this is a Design-oriented site.  Should be held above the rest, right?

4 Nov 2011 - 2:32am
dom.latham
2010

I don't think anybody is defending the design, just criticising the critique. Mr Norman needs a thick skin too.

4 Nov 2011 - 3:29am
Queen Catherine
2009

We all need a thick skin...but...

... if you tell the story of how you got there - the design should be uncontentious. i.e. bulletproof.

It's not about what I think is great design (because I'm going through a totally black phase right now) - it's about what the people who might use this showed me, told me. It's about them not me.

So therefore - every question / criticism can be justified without personal insult.... no? 

So - how dare any of us critique (or worse-  criticise) without contezt. 

Perhaps there is research that proves otherwise to what we think is a brilliant way of doing things in our designer awesomeness?

Just saying...

4 Nov 2011 - 3:04pm
Erik Johnson
2009

... if you tell the story of how you got there - the design should be uncontentious. i.e. bulletproof.

As designers we don't always get the chance to tell the story of how we arrived at a particular design.

It's not about what I think is great design (because I'm going through a totally black phase right now) - it's about what the people who might use this showed me, told me. It's about them not me.

I used the site the minute I went to it.  When you view the site, you too are a user.  Naturally as designers we are users of this kind of site looking for info about possible studies.  Immediately questions arise as to why it's difficult to read, why the content area is so narrow, etc.  We're allowed to make these judgements - no?  I agree with your comment about personal insults - that''s never ok.

So - how dare any of us critique (or worse-  criticise) without contezt. 

Because this is our profession and personally I would hope I have learned a thing or two about what makes an interface work for the user, and what doesn't.

4 Nov 2011 - 8:15am
cambeck
2010

Let me start by saying that I don't think that the DN's tone is especially constructive. As a UX professional, go into a design presentation and talk to a young art director like that. Or a CEO who loves small gray type. Not helpful.

That's not to say that his assessment is without any merit, even if his opinion wasn't solicited or paid for (supposedly freeing him from social norms of polite society ... but hey, at least he signed his own name and didn't do it under a banner of anonymity.)

That said, I have a broader question for the group... It seems there is a lot of discussion here around the idea that we need to understand the designer's intent in order to critique the work. While this is probably most effective at helping redesign the site, it doesn't mean the critique is inaccurate.

The small type ... in an image ... has fundamental problems that aren't dependent on designer's intent. What's important is the user's intent. And if those intents are ignored, then it negatively impacts the business intent. And this is how design is different than baseball. In design, it's two strikes and you're out.

So I'd just say -- for clarification only, because I don't think I've heard anyone directly contradict this -- that good design is often a product of the work of a lot of people who need the soft skills of collaboration and interpersonal communication. Yes, it involves tradeoffs that usually come out of meetings and critiques and design-by-committee. But although we may be sympathetic to the sacrifices designers sometimes have to make to please stakeholders, excuses for poor design do not transform poor design into good design.

By all means, explain your intent -- explain your constraints -- but only for the purpose of finding a different strategy to solve the problem, in pursuit of good design. 

That doesn't seem to be DN's intent here -- And say what you want about what character that reveals, it doesn't make his critique immediately suspect.

6 Nov 2011 - 7:46am
Jared M. Spool
2003

Cam,

I guess my concern is about how we get change. If our goal is that every design be an awesome design (especially those of the institutions that are training the next generation of designers), how do we engage in conversations that move towards that goal.

When leaders and others from our field burst into harsh-toned unsolicited critiques without giving the design team a chance to say where they were coming from, I fear we squash the opportunity for that engagement.

Sure, asking about intent isn't necessarily going to produce a better design, but it starts a conversation much better than an are-you-some-kind-of-idiot approach.

That's where I'm coming from.

Jared

6 Nov 2011 - 8:48am
fj
2010

Jared wrote:

When leaders and others from our field burst into harsh-toned unsolicited critiques without giving the design team a chance to say where they were coming from,

Seems to me that the people who are responsible for the website found their chance to say where they were coming from just fine. And actually declined to do so, but instead said it was fair call.

You have a point here for the larger conversation, but I wouldn't say so for this specific instance. This isn't some amateur geocities effort; when a Design or Communications Department designs communication and then sends specific 'leaders' announcements about come learn design and communication with us, there's an argument that they are inviting crituiqes about their own design and communication. Was it harsh? Not nearly as harsh as would have come from my Accessibility colleagues: now they can get harsh when their screenreaders choke on yet another thoughtless website.

A Design Department that educates people is styling itself to be a leader as well. I don't think we're going to get to everything being an awesome design either by letting leaders off the hook easily or gently.

8 Nov 2011 - 9:59pm
cherylkimble
2005

What exactly WAS Norman's intent?

Letting off steam? Ridiculing the UC system & the folks who worked hard on the design? Trying to get a consulting gig for nngroup?

I don't think any intent can excuse his comments. They weren't constructive. They were rude. They were based on personal opinion. 

I didn't have any problem with the site. If he had some sort of issue, it would have been much more productive (and professional) had he spelled it out. 

This kind of dogmatic approach to design is bad for our profession.

5 Nov 2011 - 2:26pm
Larry Tesler
2004

 

On Nov 4, 2011, at 3:20 PM, Erik Johnson wrote:

On Nov 4, 2011, at 3:13 AM, Queen Catherine wrote:

It's not about what I think is great design (because I'm going through a totally black phase right now) - it's about what the people who might use this showed me, told me. It's about them not me.

I used the site the minute I went to it.  When you view the site, you too are a user.

If you visit a site designed for people who read Urdu and you can't read Urdu, you will find it illegible. The fact hat you visited it does not make you an intended user.

On Nov 4, 2011, at 3:13 AM, Queen Catherine wrote:

So - how dare any of us critique (or worse-  criticise) without contezt. 

Because this is our profession and personally I would hope I have learned a thing or two about what makes an interface work for the user, and what doesn't.

A thing or two, surely. But never everything.

I used to believe that when a group of experienced UX designers and researchers evaluated a proposed user interface change and all expressed the confident opinion that it would not make the interface work better for the user, there was no need to confirm our skeptical view through testing. But then I was involved in situations where both usability studies and analytics indicated that proposed changes we had all ridiculed actually worked very well. 

And these websites were our own. We knew even less about the users of other people's websites.

Larry Tesler
7 Nov 2011 - 1:25pm
Erik Johnson
2009

If you visit a site designed for people who read Urdu and you can't read Urdu, you will find it illegible. The fact hat you visited it does not make you an intended user.

Larry, you missed my point.  As interaction designers, I would assume that we are all prospective users of the UCDavis site - no?  If I was looking to broaden my design skills and visit the UCDavis site for information on any potential classes would I not be a valid user of the site?  Exactly how specific is the user of a higher education site?  As an example, do these users generally desire small text that is difficult to read?  No matter, I would argue that *any* site should be easy to read and be flexible to the viewer, at a minimum.  

This is a simple issue, as far as I can tell.  I am not arguing for a different color that I think the site's users would find more useful - or a different font, etc.  I am arguing that any/all UIs should be easy to read and have a level of flexibility to be most useful.  When you display small fonts and do not let the user scale them - it's a fail.  When you display that amount of homepage content in Flash - as far as I'm concerned - fail.  How could you or anyone on this list possibly argue against this?  There are fundamental things all UIs must do to make them successful regardless of the users, the designer's intent, whatever.



7 Nov 2011 - 7:26pm
Larry Tesler
2004

Erik,

I, too, always object to small type and Flash home pages. I wasn't expressing an opinion about either the UC Davis Design site or Don's critique of it. I was commenting about two sentences you wrote that I interpreted to mean that you thought anyone who visited a site was a user whose needs the designer should have addressed. Now I think I took what you said out of context. Sorry.

Larry

(Erik:) Larry, you missed my point. As interaction designers, I would assume that we are all prospective users of the UCDavis site - no? If I was looking to broaden my design skills and visit the UCDavis site for information on any potential classes would I not be a valid user of the site? Exactly how specific is the user of a higher education site? As an example, do these users generally desire small text that is difficult to read? No matter, I would argue that *any* site should be easy to read and be flexible to the viewer, at a minimum.<br><br>This is a simple issue, as far as I can tell. I am not arguing for a different color that I think the site's users would find more useful - or a different font, etc. I am arguing that any/all UIs should be easy to read and have a level of flexibility to be most useful. When you display small fonts and do not let the user scale them - it's a fail. When you display that amount of homepage content in Flash - as far as I'm concerned - fail. How could you or anyone on this list possibly argue against this? There are fundamental things all UIs must do to make them successful regardless of the users, the designer's intent, whatever.
(Larry:) If you visit a site designed for people who read Urdu and you can't read Urdu, you will find it illegible. The fact hat you visited it does not make you an intended user.
(Erik:) I used the site the minute I went to it.  When you view the site, you too are a user.
5 Nov 2011 - 11:52pm
gejoreni
2010

http://www.jnd.org/
That is all I have to say.

Well, maybe not....

Sometimes our web presence doesn't reflect our talent. I would call it the mechanic's car or the handy man's house complex. Sometimes you spend so much time working on other things you forget to fix your own home. I agree though, it is hard to read the text, but worse yet it is flash.

6 Nov 2011 - 9:37am
jlofton42
2010

Don Norman is becoming (or already is) the John C Dvorak of design. His articles are intended to generate page views by making radical/controversial statements. Having said that, in this case I would agree with him and the approach he took to critique the UCDavis design web site. Professor Norman has been part of the UC system and now serves as Professor Emeritus, so I am sure he is to some degree familiar with the process that goes in to designing an academic site. I'd say he may also be a little embarrassed by the design of a site he may remotely be associated.

It's very likely he is asked to recommend programs and he'd love to point prospective students in the direction of UCDavis, but with a site like that he can't. Perhaps, he enquired what was going on and received some bureaucratic answer that a "new" design is in the works. That may have been 6 months ago. In the end, it's not his role to be involved in the redesign, it just needs to get redesigned for the sake of the program.

Is there a right way to critique design work? Yes, and Don Norman followed it by supporting his comments with the reasons that go beyond simply "he doesn't like the colors". To Mr. Spool's contention of what is the best way to get change, I'd argue that Professor Norman's use of his platform to post the critique is going to get change a whole lot quicker than if he sat in some meeting with the UC administrators all explaining to him why the process is taking so long. Having the designer explain their intent is great for coming up with ways to improve a design, but a design has to stand on it's own without someone explaining it to the people who perceive and use the design. Don's critique was intended to get that process started (it seems that it had already) or spur them to get it completed sooner than later.

Professional critiques are based on valid evaluations and assumptions, and can be done in a number of formats or approaches. It is incumbent upon the person making the critique to show why their criticism is valid and should be considered. What makes a critique unprofessional, whether solicited or not, is when it has no basis that can be objectively supported. It is also equally valid to critique the critique. If a reviewer is not aware of or ignores a constraint that is a legitimate issue then it is correct to call them out on that.

As an example of unprofessional critique, there was a recent unsolicited redesign of a prominent news publication's web site, in which the redesign did not include advertisements. While the design looked like an improvement, it left out a critical constraint that would have to be brought back for the design to be successful. Certainly, if you are involved in a design process, Professor Norman's approach would not likely get you invited to the process to improve the design.

As a side note: I've noticed that it is the inline editor is causing the problem of seeing the formatting style junk. People are writing up their responses in MSWord or other word processing program and it is capturing the junk formatting in the copy/paste process.

6 Nov 2011 - 2:54pm
penguinstorm
2005

I would only dispute your use of the continuous tense "becoming." Norman's been filling that role for a while now.

6 Nov 2011 - 2:55pm
penguinstorm
2005

Actually another is that Norman has *credibility* in that he's practiced in the field. Dvorack is a curmudgeon with a column.

8 Nov 2011 - 9:27pm
cherylkimble
2005

Just wondering what your definition of credibility is, with regard to Norman. His resume only lists one IA-related gig at Apple - which is hardly focused on web design. All his other experience is academic or "consulting with management", which doesn't exactly translate into practical design work.

I put him in the same category as Nielsen, who is, of course, his partner - the "do as I say, not as I do" critic.

Remember the Flash is 99% bad comment? That was until Nielsen was hired by Macromedia....

Frankly, these guys are big on theory and cranking out books and articles telling us what to do without having to duke it out in the trenches . I've long since tossed them aside, along with Tufte, as references for my ux design work.

ps. those who live in glass houses, should not throw stones: ex. nngroup.com   

8 Nov 2011 - 9:47pm
cherylkimble
2005

That's his post? Really?

First, there is at least one typo. Second, his use of grammar is questionable - especially for an academic.

But the real point is, what is so horrible about the site? Except for slamming designers & students in an incredibly condescending manner, he failed to provide any critique at all. 

Critiques are constructive criticism intended to provide insight into how a work is coming across to the viewer (users in this case) and one would think that someone with his supposed stature in our industry would be more thoughtful and gracious when it comes to sharing his. 

 

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