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The problem with 'design' and websites
2010-03-06: Here's a video that illustrates perfectly what's wrong with web development led by graphic design (it's a bit flaky in it's delivery, btw, so hit refresh if it doesn't work first time).
I've not got a problem with good design, who could have? That would be like having a problem with tasty food or great music.
Many people are lazy about how they think about design. Perhaps designers encourage it. It's nice to think you're cool, and if you're going to be a designer you really ought to embody your practice. That leads to choosing great products like cars, clothes, and phones which .. is kinda cool. So maybe it's just part of being a designer. And perhaps people think if they knock around with designers some of the cool might rub off on them. So, designers look cool and have lots of people to hang out with. What's wrong with that?
The book I'm reading at the moment talks much more about design for the uncool, the disadvantaged, the poor, and the disabled. So now I'm more interested.
Let's give that video some hassle. Looking at how the user interacts with that screen, poking and gesturing, I get irritated. Do any of you use a screen like that? Do you like working that way? It really looks like I'd feel it was an effort to use a screen by poking at it. I think it's because moving your hand and arm like that requires a shift in musculature throughout your torso. Whereas with a mouse, your hand is already rested over it. Subconsciously, it's a big deal to move your whole arm just to turn a page. So you won't want to do it. So using a tablet is irritating, not a pleasure. Which puts you in the wrong frame of mind to browse lifestyle articles and magazines.
This, though, is the big, fundamental issue with the video. He talks about the user interface (UI), and it's clear he's a designer, perhaps a graphic designer. But it's as if the UI is a higher level of graphic design .. and it isn't. Human computer interaction is a huge field where huge disciplines like psychology, information architecture, and usability and accessibility stuff meet.
For instance, he keeps demonstrating the horizontal scroll to more content, but half the time he ends up at that car ad. There seems to be nothing on the screen that tells you what you're scrolling to. That breaks a fundamental rule of usability, that the user should know what will happen when they choose an option, and when they arrive on the next screen, it should be basically what they expected .. no surprises.
The demonstration seems to imagine a Halifax CardCash kinda world where people have the spare time and inclination to sit with a gadget and try to read a magazine on it and the brand of the magazine they are trying to read is so trusted that we'd pore over every page, letting the editor and publisher lead us wherever they want. That's an advertising person's dream, but it's not real.
Let's strip out the idea that someone would sit and read some glossy lifestyle magazine on a tablet like this. We'd be more likely to browse YouTube or Facebook. I mean .. we absolutely do sit and browse through stuff on our computers, letting the wind blow us wherever it may, but .. and here's the thing .. underneath both of those experiences is a whole heapload of programming that provides us what we want. "You like that? Then you'll love this." He makes no mention of the enormous amount of work and yes, design, that goes into making that happen. Do you think YouTube would be as engaging without it?
There's personalisation. People new to YouTube may not have seen Maru the cat, but for others they've seen the top 100 funny videos on YouTube and they want something more. Two users, two different desires. YouTube presents them both with different content because it knows something about what they like. That makes it engaging .. because it's showing each of us what we want to see.
So what's groovy about carrying around some form of handheld computer is that it provides what we want, when we want it.
When I went to that meeting of the Yorkshire Mafia the other day, I prepared by checking where the hotel was. The postcode in Google Maps puts it at Leeds Railway Station, and I used to live in Leeds so I thought no more about it. As I drove in at night in the rain from an unfamiliar direction, I got lost. When I found the station, I couldn't find the hotel. The static station information didn't tell me. The interactive screens didn't tell me. Tourist information had closed for the night. There was no-one from the station who looked like they might help. The WiFi seemed to need a login. And I couldn't see the hotel nearby. Turns out it wasn't really nearby at all, and it was a new-build. I had to ask four people to reach it. That's what you want a handheld computer for, and if it took you by a route where you were less likely to get mugged that would be nice.
What if I were in Japan? I'd need internationalisation.
I haven't got a problem with aspiration, and I understand that advertising has to appeal to our lizard brains in order to work, that's absolutely fine.
But this video isn't an ad. Actually, maybe I'm wrong about that. Perhaps it really is. And in that context, fine, advertise what you do, it's a great ad, so long as you make clear what you're doing isn't really user interface design in any whole sense. You're designing the look and feel of a user interface. That's not the whole story by a long way. It's not even the hardest, most heroic or most interesting part. It's the way you've painted the house. I'm much more interested in the house, its location, its services and its community.
So if it isn't an ad, my fundamental problem is that this doesn't seem to be addressed to any problem anyone's actually got. It's a top-down, brand and business-led imagining of how corporations might be able to sell to us in the future. More than that, it's a design company's pitch for how they might help corporations use new technology to improve their business. It depicts a cosy world where business calls all the shots and we just spend our money on Porsche branded sneakers.
Or as a friend put it: "it's like annoying electronic doors and windows where a door knob and a hinge would have done nicely. 'We're doing it because we can'. Beyond that, no justification nor use. Will it 'save the planet', less paper, less ink, less chemicals. No, just even more south africans and koreans down pits searching for precious metals to power the computer, more wars, more instability, on and on .. so .. it's bollocks really. But it will happen because it can. And for someone returning from one of the war regions full of precious metals with all their limbs blown off, I guess not having to turn pages in a mag will actually, one day, be of use after they have stopped weeping".
If it's design, if it's business, surely it should address a need. That's the whole point .. we come to work every day to solve people's problems in a way they can discover and afford. Their problems. We solve people's problems. That's what makes for a better world. That's the promise of free market capitalism. It spots a need and solves it and thereby improves society.
There's no reason I would want what's shown (even if it were free), it would be irritating to use, I wouldn't use it the way they want me to use it, it doesn't do what I want, and it appears to corral the design of a user interface as a graphic design job (which it absolutely isn't). But it looks nice, so that's OK then.
Incidentally, I'm not trying to kill all graphic designers here, I'm just tackling that video. Funnily enough as I was writing this I did keep thinking about Electric Angel, the efforts Adrian's made .. with Chart Scarborough to understand urban navigation and in the railway project looking into the history, to try to look into things more deeply. Of course, you have to deliver something that looks nice and the budget probably doesn't usually provide for much research, but I actually think Adrian's got soul, does the right things. So I'm really not knocking designers. I'm knocking that video.

By John Allsopp
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