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Apples and Oranges : Comments

By Didier P. Hilhorst

June 9, 2004


Jarvis Addison

June 9, 2004 9:44 PM

Very insightful and helpful commentary. I will be circulating this througout the company and forwarding to some colleagues dealing with similar situations.

Michael Watts

June 10, 2004 1:53 AM

Good article.
I think working with a more wholistic view would make this less of an issue. Design is important, so is usability, so is IA, but we have to remember they are all part of a greater product.

As for User Researchers suggesting solutions to designers – don’t take offense. People making suggestions in areas that aren’t their expertise is common all over the place. Its natural to suggest a solution to a potential problem you identify, so don’t take offense even if you do think they are way out of line.

Donna Maurer

June 10, 2004 4:40 AM

Great article…I think.

I’m a usability gal – says so on my business card (well, doesn’t say gal, says specialist). I do ‘usability’ professionally and I do it well. I do lots of research, IA, design, testing; and a ton of communicating with clever people.

I read articles like this and wonder who the hell this mysterious, narrow-minded, uncommunicative ‘usability’ person is. Truly, I have never met anyone who fits your description. I guess they must be around or you wouldn’t be able to write about them, but I wonder whether they are real people who you have worked on projects with (perhaps unsuccessfully), or one or two ‘usability gurus’ who don’t actually have anything in common with the rest of us?

Look, it all sounds great. Beautiful argument for the importance of design, which is fabulous. It just doesn’t reflect any of my real life experiences.

Joshua Porter

June 10, 2004 4:56 AM

This is the same author who wrote “The Designer is Dead, Long Live the Designer”? Wow, Didier. You’ve changed.

Thanks for making some important issues clear. People taking on the usability role aren’t designers, they’re evaluators. That term alone (evaluate) gives off a negative connotation. However, how would we design good systems without some way to evaluate things? It’s all about what you’re evaluating. In my experience a major point of contention is that designers tend to evaluate what they see, and usability folks tend to evaluate what users do. Perhaps it’s an issue of patience, or efficiency, or background? Both have their merits.

You found the right term, I think, when you say “inform”. Usability testing can inform design, but should in no way substitute for it. Designers design, and usability folks inform them of both what is working and what isn’t working. In order to do this effectively usability folks must throw their opinions out the window and focus solely on the behaviors of users. Then they discuss the issues with the designer (and may or may not suggest changes).

It’s all about swallowing pride, in a sense. It takes a bit of it from both sides, but what worthwhile things don’t?

Didier Hilhorst

June 10, 2004 6:56 AM

Donna — Of course most of what I discuss is based on my own experience or the words of those that have significant influence in the field of usability. That said, I have a long way to go and still need to learn. I, like any person, evolve in time, adjust my thoughts based on experience and knowledge. Time will tell how I feel about matters in, say, 10 years. One thing that will not change is my passion for design. I am, and will always remain, a designer. Therefor I am biased. I guess it’s natural, but I try to see the big picture. A narrow-minded designer is as bad as a narrow-minded usability expert. I have a tendency to generalize yet at the same time try to keep in mind that there are numerous very sensible and qualified user researchers outthere, such as yourself. I am glad to see that more and more second generation usability experts are aware of their position as it relates to design, and its constraints.

Joshua — I wrote the piece. Surprising? Not to me. Did I change? Time will tell. Before I wrote my first column a wave of commentary hit the web suggesting that design does not matter (specifically aesthetic quality.) I will admit that the article was subjective to some extend, regarding usability, and included some thoughts that in hindsight may appear biased. But this remains a column after all. What I write is my opinion, and not necessarily the right thing to do. I stimulate discussion — I assume everyone is intelligent enough to take away what they feel is useful (maybe that’s naïve indeed, but I would like to believe so.) Sure, giving the usability folks out there a sting is fun at times (in a constructive sense), but I will agree that it does not really help the relation in the long term. But to say design does not matter * in any way possible is to wake up the passionate designer in me that will defend his turf no matter what. I think your advice about “swallowing pride” is an important one and not the least a tough one to follow. But I would suggest to be careful about swallowing your pride, know when to do so, but also know when not to. Discussion and communication will tell what is suitable. Each specialist has its own constraints, plus overall project constraints related to business, technology, users, etc.

* Please note that I do not think you belong to that category — to avoid misunderstandings.

Brian Jameson

June 10, 2004 7:19 AM

So the logical question is: how do researchers get an understanding of visual design principles— they read LukeW’s article on visual organization for starters.

Nick Finck

June 10, 2004 8:16 AM

Brian: or they read Andrew Mundi’s great interactive presentation on The Principles of Graphic Design. Granted it is not web-centric design he is talking about here but it is the core foundation of good design and those understandings apply to Web Design as well.

J Buck

June 11, 2004 8:03 PM

Upon reading this article and its’ responses I have the sudden urge to smack someone. I am a design guy. I feel design ultimately plays an immensely important role to a company’s web presence, but if a site is not functional or “usable” then its’ value is tremendously decreased.

Designers need to stop being so ignorant to the issue. Bottom line: functionality of a web site is far more valuable to any company’s web site than an excellent design.

Matthew Phillips

June 21, 2004 1:57 AM

Does the term design just refer to the physical appearance of a site and the role of the designer just to deal with that appearance?

I think not. I believe role of the designer is to distil the many different aspects that make up a project into one coherent result. As such we designers should not forget that as important as the aesthetic is, our efforts are wasted where we ignore other aspect such as ergonomics

Joel Grossman

July 4, 2004 3:07 PM

We have tried to help both “usability professionals” and “designers” step out of the back-and-forth by re-centering the discussion around the terms branding and usability, both as elements of design.

It’s been useful to take this opposition out of the context of the Web design and into other domains—e.g. package design—where we can apply the tenets of usability without the Jakob Nielsen baggage. It’s fascinating to see designers readily appreciate ‘usability’ tenets when couched in less charged terms and contexts.

Simply put, design as a practice requires subtle balances between making the artifact absolutely as easy to use as possible and absolutely as emotionally resonant as possible. The trick lies in finding that balance each time, regardless of what you call yourself on your business card.


July 14, 2004 3:24 PM

Collaboration is the way to go. Not one person telling another what to do. If a site is “designed” by just the designer, then you really are not leveraging the expertise of the whole team. You will have to go back again and again to make changes. If the process of design is collaborative then the reasoning behind comments and suggestions are clear and there is less chance for someone to take a comment personally. No good designer works in a box with their head down, so why not work with those around you? This way the whole team is clear about the voice, the imagery, the user’s perspective… working together you learn from one another and create something none of you could have done on your own.

Web Template Freak

August 14, 2004 2:34 AM

This seems to be the question that comes up most in my interactions with web designs, either the author makes it ugly and usable or sweet and impossible to use. If one of you figures out how to get the best of both worlds please show me :-).

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