Kevin Cheng  

iTeaJuicer X

October 17th, 2003 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Last week, I mentioned the problems HCI and programmers often have in communication. I posed the same question last Friday to Don Norman to get his views when he was visiting and giving a talk to a class. Paraphrasing Norman, his view was that these issues would become minimal problems if you started off on the right foot. In other words, get the whole team aligned in their goals. If everybody is working towards the same goal, communication will naturally happen. He also mentioned Alan Cooperís User Personas as a good way to achieve that alignment.His point is valid, though probably a bit idealistic. Certainly, there are teams where that type of cohesion happens but those are in the minority. One problem with that theory is that it assumes involvement from the beginning of the development cycle. I could go into how HCI needs to be there during requirements gathering but thatís another can of worms we can discuss another time. We know that ideal answer is perfect alignment and early involvement by all parties. Educating enough people from all the disciplines to actually achieve that is non-trivial.

I think weíve talked that subject so dry I can see the bottom of the well. Letís talk more about Donís new book.

When Don came to speak, the majority of his talk revolved around the research he had been doing towards this book. I wonít bore you with the details when you can read them on his site. The gist is that Don got tired of people taking his book as a statement that usability is so paramount and there is no place for aesthetics. His book, therefore, is a response to this reaction.

Confession time: I used to dismiss Norman as “just another academic”. DOET, of course, is a great primer on usability and HCI for anyone in any field but beyond that, I thought he was just another academic giving professionals advice when he had very little grounding in the real world. After all, whenís the last time heís been in a software development cycle? It turns out my baseless assumptions were indeed Ö baseless.

Despite his part time consulting with firms, I do believe he is somewhat out of synch with modern development projects and the major challenges. However, I found him to be quite down to earth and most importantly, enthusiastic. Like a child just discovering our industry, Norman was constantly taking pictures and fidgeting with cables, coffee cup holders, etc. I believe that sort of enthusiasm, and Normanís ability to take regular objects and make them into a show-and-tell are what makes him so successful. Enthusiasm is contagious.

Little of what Don mentioned in his talk was particularly surprising. Looks attract attention. When you find something really attractive, youíre willing to overlook other flaws. I donít think I need to spell out the human relationship parallels that one could draw from that statement.

Donís statements certainly have their place. Instigating a response, an emotion, from users can be powerful. Some examples may not quite apply to his model. Fighter pilots, for example, may think it cool that their designer created a Star Trek like cockpit but in reality, they donít really care.

What is the right balance though? Is there an optimal mix? Is usability an equal partner to aesthetics or just a minimum gate that must be met so long as the aesthetics are appealing? The easy answer is that it depends. Whoís using it, what itís being used for, how often, etc.

I will discuss those points further a little later but for the moment, Iíd love to hear discussions on these ideas from our visitors. As our comic discusses this week, the right mix is rarely 100% aesthetics with complete disregard for usability Ö donít let it happen to you!

7 Responses to “iTeaJuicer X”
Viswanath Gondi wrote:

The ‘Wow factor’ is important to attract attention, but it all boils down to the return of investment (cost vs benifits). The wow factor may or maynot be a benifit. I have a post on the importance of Wow factor.

Meri wrote:

I would agree that the “Wow” factor is important when attracting users/consumers/customers in the first place. But when you do buy that wow product, the true test will come down to how usable it is. I also think that although Norman definitely has a point, I also think that we need to remember that people are much more likely to overcome issues with a real product that a piece of software.

If people have to accept that a button in their car is in a bit of a stupid place. People are much more likely to get in a strop with a bit of bad usability in software and GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. Whether it be another website or just downloading/buying another piece of software.

The worst case scenario, of course, will be in a company, that the users then move away from using the application altogether, because the perceived personal benefit to them is so much less.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Viswanath: Nice article. As you point out, having a wow factor without the proper marketing (evangelism) isn’t useful. TUBA expresses that quite well =)

Meri, the unique nature of software definitely makes it different from a car deck. But looking at it from the “before purchase” perspective:

The Cooper Mini has a great interior. The middle speedometer (or was it tachometer) just draws so much attention. I want one just because of that even though it’s much less usable than having it in front of me behind the steering wheel.

People download skins for their MP3 players and themes for their desktop - even ones that are completely unusable. Why? Becuase it looks good to them and suits them.

Having a barrier to alternatives definitely plays a role in how much users endure. Sometimes, though, they’re not even seeking to use the product and so they don’t seek alternatives. Norman mentions a person who would own a clock she can’t read, just because it would make a good conversation topic.

Roomba Review wrote:

I think I would tend to agree that the average user will tend to pick style over substance. Personally, if I’m working at a Windows XP machine, I turn off the fancy graphics, the wallpaper, the cutesy themes and try to make everything as minimilist and as usable as possible. But you will find that a typical user will consistently choose the fancy graphics and animations time and time again, in fact preferring to choose longer wait times and inefficiency over usability.

Another thing to mention is that style will lend credibility to a design. Sites like Jakob Nielsen’s may be the ideal when it comes to ‘by the book’ useability, but because the site has abolutely no style whatsoever, it tends to appear to lack credibility because the design is so rudimentary. Furthermore, the site is so concerned about improving usability for dial-up users that it eschews graphics and style entirely. While this may improve usability as far as wait times, it is actually one of the least useable designs as far as organization. The page looks cluttered and information is difficult to find quickly and easily.

There definitely needs to be a balance. The right design can’t be pure aesthetics, but by the same token it can’t be 100% substance either!

Sohail Khaliq wrote:

Hi people I was just surfing and can across your site. Really enjoyed you discussion didnít want to leave without saying something.

I bought a chair over the weekend just because it looks good. I already have one but itís boring. Made of wood and has a really big soft cushion. The one I bought looked great. I walked passed it at first and rubbed my eyes to look at it again (the price tag made me rub my eyes to). Anyway I saw it in all itís glory and though to myself, I gots to have it.

As soon as I got home I put it in the place of the old one. It lit up my room but then the other furniture didnít look as good. So I rearranged the whole room, in my passion for the chair I realised that I hadnít even sat in it. I stopped what I was doing and approached the chair after just five minutes I realised how stupid I had been the chair was a disaster I want comfortable it was actually the worst chair I had ever sat in. A chair that looks so good and so pricey, why wasnít it comfortable, all I could say was my emotions had robbed me. I brought my old chair back in to the room and place it back in to its rightful position. As for the Designer chair well it sit in my lounge looking pretty.

The old stuff is always better, because it was made or bought to do what it had to do. New things with the ďWOWĒ factor look good and they might have a few improvements, but they have a whole load of unwanted add innís. The same goes for software.

El Guerrero del Interfaz wrote:

Although it may seem a redundancy, the right blend of usability/aesthetics depends on the *use* of the objects. Very good examples are “custom” bikes, Harley-Davisdon first. These bikes have the lousiest usability you can think of. In some cases, for example stick shifts, rigid frames, minimalist approaches and similar, bad usability seems to be actually researched to be the worst. But they look great, and draw much more attention than extremely well designed and usable rice-rockets.
So I own a gorgeous customized HD that’s a pain to use. I use it to draw attention, when I want to be seen, to cruise and to mingle with my 1% buddies. But, when I have to travel, whether it is long trips of 1000 miles a day, twisty back road side scrapping or city commuting, I use a very usable, polyvalent and ugly BMW.
The BMW is a vehicle, the HD a piece of art that can be used as a vehicle. Somewhat. It’s just like clothing. Most of the “clothing” that my daughter uses has only an aesthetics function. Other objects, like bikes or cars have dual functions just like clothes. The blend of usability/aesthetics depends on your tastes and the use you are going to give to that object.
So Don Norman is right. And Jakob Nielsen too. It all boils down to whether you are designing a tool, a piece of jewelry or something in between. I donít see why thereís so much polemics with that.

El Guerrero del Interfaz

Lise A wrote:

Sorry - put this comment the wrong place. I think the link to the DOET book is broken - is “poet” instead of “doet”.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?