Tom Chi  

Setting the Standard

November 14th, 2003 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

To prep for this article I thought about standards for the whole week. For a while I had this notion that building software was like writing a novel, and standards were the rules of grammar. It’s possible to work outside of the queen’s rules for English grammar, but you risk not being understood. I eventually gave up on this idea since there were so many ways to be understood outside the rules.

My next idea was that standards were like the 5 paragraph essay. In high school they teach this form of writing where every piece must have an intro, 3 supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. The last line of your intro is the thesis and the leading sentence of each paragraph kicks off a supporting point. This was more like it. The 5 paragraph essay enforces a generally understood structure, but it is clearly not the only structure that can be understood. It is useful in high school because it let writers and non-writers put words on the page without having to agonize over structure. Applying this analogy to UI design, UI standards help put your interface into a generally understandable form, though by no means the only or best form possible.The downside to both the 5 paragraph essay and UI standards is that neither teaches the ‘why’ behind how structure works. Thus, when faced with a situation not easily addressed by published standards, we are left high and dry. As HCI people we might see a grid-inspector working because of implied visual hierachy, and when the model breaks we know how to preserve that hierarchy when we update the design. For non-HCI people, the choice is harder. Either try to adhere to the standards anyhow, or shoehorn it in the best you can. Ultimately though, if you didn’t know what aspects of the layout allowed the structure to work, its hard to keep those aspects intact.

Now the flipside of this analogy (if it is true at all), is that it is possible to completely abandon standards if you really know what you are doing. An experienced author doesn’t conform to the 5 paragraph essay. Instead they have a deep understanding of pacing, structure, and argument. They can present a point fluidly without resorting to a specific form. Instead they can redefine form but still strike a chord and make sense. The trouble of course is that there are very few authors (and probably fewer UI designers) that can pull this off.

Most of us in the industry are somewhere in between. We are like genre authors (romance, horror, non-fiction) who use the techniques and tropes of a form to help guide us. We’re not locked into 5 paragraphs, but we are also not pushing or expanding the boundaries of form. When one of us eventually does, he/she gets to set the new standards. … Until then, I had better conclude since I got to #5.

9 Responses to “Setting the Standard”
Stephen So wrote:

TOMCHI: So what did you think of the article, are standards useful?

SOSO: standards are good as a learning tools as well as a way to get information across more easily…i think. For example, think road signs. That’s information transmitted in a standard way…and almost a universal way.

TOMCHI: I see. So how about people who venture beyond the standards? Also - are standards universal because we’ve learned them? Or are they universal because they tap into something deeper about how our brains work?

SOSO: going beyond does not mean leaving behind….we can certainly expand a current standard. For example, the handicap sign is universally recognized, but what if we add color to the sign? Example: pink handicap sign vs baby blue handicap sign. Do you see what i mean? — Adding exsisting semiotics to create new meaning.
… The brain thing though, that’s a hard question. We learn some of symbols, but we react naturally to others. For example, happy faces are patterned after our natural muscle movement when we feel content… But the arrow is something that we have to learn..

TOMCHI: Yeah, I think because interfaces are visual, they offer greater potential to tap into something more innate than pure language does.

SOSO: Yes. We control color, depth, contrast, etc…so we control how people look at things.

TOMCHI: Right. As opposed to language, which may appear very different in different context

SOSO: see how easy it is to see the O?

TOMCHI: interesting…

Paul Reinheimer wrote:

I like relying on standards the same reason I often fall back on that 5 paragraph essay format.

I don’t have to waste time thinking about structure, I can instead concentrate on content.

In essays: I come up with my three strongest points, supporting, decide on an order and get to work.

In coding: I determine what features I need to give the user, fall back on UI standards (or more likely UI experiance) to tell me where they go.

I waste less time, and particularily in the latter case, the person using my essay/code knows what is where, and what to expect.

Small question, whats that black thing bottom left? The hilt of a sword?

Daniel J. Wilson wrote:

Consistency is one of the most important aspects of interface design, in my opinion. Even if a design is less than perfect, consistent imperfection in a single interface is a lot easier to deal with than a plethora of possibly better solutions.

Incidentally, I recently wrote about the (idiotic) use of Yes/No buttons in Apple’s iTunes.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Playing the Devil’s Advocate, what if the standard in Mac was to use Yes/No dialogues?

Yes, that’s the hilt of a samurai sword. There are a couple of interesting scenes in the movie “Kill Bill” where swords just sit around in first class airline cabins.

Back to standards, they definitely save on the thought process. The assumption we have, however, is that the standards are as good and solid as the 5 paragraph format which I am not convinced they are. Even with the assumption that they are half way reasonable, which standard do you choose? Let’s say you’re developing an app in Java but it runs primarily on a Windows platform. Do you design to MS’s guidelines or Sun’s?

Paul Reinheimer wrote:

Honestly, I run with the Windows method of design.

You have stated that it will be the primary platform, and I know of few *nix/Sun type users who are not familiar with Windows. As such the Windows users will feel at home, and the *nix/Sun people will understand what is happening. Easier learning curve overall.

Tom Chi wrote:

Interestingly, the week we were making this comic, KC and I installed WindowBlinds and applied the OSX theme. Even though the look and feel was different, we had little trouble working with the new environment (though I was a bit thrown by the window controls being on the left).

The more extreme example is WinAmp. From skin to skin there are drastic differences in design and layout, but generally the differences haven’t given me much trouble. To be honest, I’m not really sure what it all means. On the one hand I imagine if everyone reinvented their look and feel with each new app, it would be chaos… but on the other hand, I haven’t had much difficultly working with well designed departures from the standard.

Daniel J. Wilson wrote:

K.C. -

You make a good point about the guidelines being just that, guidelines - not laws. If Apple were to recommend using Yes/No dialogs, I’d say ignore that guideline as it does not best serve the needs of the user.

For functions and commands that are identical or nearly so, consistency makes sense. In the pre-OS X days, application preferences were generally accessed through the Edit menu - it wasn’t the most logical place, but it was fairly predictable.

Sorry for the rather tardy reply!

Tom Chi wrote:

Paul Graham goes a little deeper into the history and gives his take on the old 5 paragraph essay format:

ammoman wrote:

forget tomchi he aint noth but a busta,writing to these lil people you anint nothing but a sucker.and you bucking at me like you aint never scared watch this choppa get the chopping its go ne dislocate yo head

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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) ?