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Issue № 64

Fragments (of Time)

by Published in Graphic Design, Project Management, Interaction Design, Usability

Olof –  the wise uncle of one of my dearest friends –  once told me a story about his father, who worked in a chemical laboratory.

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One bright day, the young Olof decided to visit his dear father at the laboratory. Like all the other employees, Olof’s father wore the standard lab rat outfit: a shiny, white lab coat with a few pens sticking up from the front pocket.

There was, however, one thing that made Olof’s father stand out from the crowd.  A large, green turtle was printed on the back of his lab coat.

The curious Olof asked his father why he had a turtle on his back, and his father responded: “It reminds me to rush slowly.”

The world needs more people like Olof’s father, to remind us that everything takes time. Somewhere, trapped in the hectic world that is the IT – business,  we –  or at least I –  seem to forget that.

THE NETWORK ECONOMY

In the network society, the individual assumes higher importance, and also becomes more vulnerable, because of the increased responsibility that is intimately related to an increased interconnectedness.

Many large Internet corporations, such as Icon, Medialab, Razorfish and others,  are –  despite all wise words that have been spoken about the new economy –   trapped in negatively conservative “factory”  – thinking.

Instead of creating strong networks, consisting of small, creative and talented IT –  companies, the smaller companies are being merged into the larger ones, becoming tiny parts of a huge organizational structure. The result has –   frighteningly often –  led to “Belgian blue companies” (where unrealistic expectations meet venture capital).

This factory thinking can, at its worst, put a damper on creativity, limit the motivation of the employees, and lead to productions surrounded by an unnecessarily large administrative structure.

When the factory tries to conform to network ideas, the result can –  in a worst – case scenario –  be the inverse of over – administration, which is a complete lack of structure. The goal is to obtain a flat organization, which results in lack of leadership.

In a well functioning network, the hierarchy of the factory does not surround the competence. Planning and production are brought closer, which   –  at its best –  creates more efficient solutions.

When working in networks, one potential problem is of course a clash of disparate business and company cultures.

A primary condition for a functioning network is a shared vision between the individual units within areas like project management, workflow and cross thinking.

Allocating enough time to synchronize all areas of the production process is a direct investment into the company

THE CONCEPT OF TIME

It takes plenty of time to form solid relationships, be they personal or business relations. In some countries, the divorce rate is as high as 50%.  If people took the time to get to know each other well, that rate would most likely be dramatically lowered. This goes for the business world, too.

It takes time for the human brain to understand new concepts, to form new ideas, and to act on these ideas.

Far too often, many of us are forced to rush –  not given (or taking) enough time to digest our thoughts and feelings.

People may assume that an art director (or a creative director, or a system developer) who idly stares at the ceiling for 60% of the day is nothing but an overpaid slacker. We have to bear in mind that the actual productive time of a day of an employee in our industry –  an industry based on immaterial values –  is quite small in comparison with the total working hours.

In an interview, Gene Na – founder of Kioken – said:

Our Senior Design Technologist spends 85% of his time working on personal projects, but in the process of doing so he discovers incredible applications and techniques which we can use on our work. It’s all about giving people the freedom of ownership.

A talented Swedish woman –  Bodil Jönsson –  coined the term “TTT”, meaning Thoughts Take Time. It’s rather self – explanatory.

Everything takes time.

Could it be that we’re moving from the time-based economy to a quality-based economy? Maybe this is what is actually happening instead of a shift from the industrial economy to the network economy? Is it worth waiting a month or two more if the economical life span of the resulting product or solution is many times longer than the quick and dirty solution? Maybe it’s a shift from a short – term economy to a long – term economy? Does the market actually afford the solutions that we want to provide, and if it doesn’t, how and where do the buyers and sellers meet?

The questions are more abundant than the answers here.

In any economic theory –  or reality for that matter –  time is always the scarce resource. Even if and when we reach an ecologically balanced economy –  an econology –  time is the limiting factor in terms of regrowth. Any consumption above the limiting factor means “stealing time” from coming generations –  and yes, we’ve stolen a few generations’ worth of time already.

So taking this into account, the time – consuming art of creating economic and cultural values in networks is great because we are actually buying and selling time from each other. “Producing” or “buying” time is quite environmentally friendly. The problem is that our consumption needs are constant or even accelerating.

This is why an econology is so important to reach, soon! In a good world, and it still can be if we want it to be, the information revolution could promote environmentally sound products –  simply by increasing the chance that people find and support these products.

The old advertising guru Bill Bernbach put it this way:

“All of us that professionally use mass media influence society. We can vulgarize it. We can brutalize it. Or we can help bringing it to a higher level. Maybe NOW is the time for us to start using the knowledge we have worked so many years to earn to support things that are in desperate need to be described in clear, believable, penetrating and persuading words.”

My new slogan is:

We have to act assuming that there’s enough time.

However, right now, I’m painfully aware of the fact that the clock is ticking,  so let’s proceed.

SMALLER –  FASTER –  BETTER?

In the beginning, the web was ever so static. Streams of words set in fixed sizes of Times flowed over grey backgrounds. Large monitors with high resolution were reserved for the occasional art director (and perhaps a few CEOs, sharing a common need to impress).

Today, even Mr. Doe on the corner owns a spanking new computer with at least a 17” monitor, a 3D graphics card and an acceptably fast internet connection.

What appears in Mr. Doe’s web browser is highly different from what he would’ve seen back in ‘94. Kinetic design, bold colors, a high level of interactivity, and… tiny –  bordering on unreadable –  text and super small pixellated graphics?!

The revolution of small is quite palpable within the broad field of consumer electronics. Think of cell ‘phones. They’re certainly not getting larger. The same thing is valid for practically every other handheld electronic product,  or home stereo system, or –  to jump into another field –  car. Everything shrinks, it seems.

Back in the 80’s, I wished for nothing else than higher screen resolution.  Funnily enough, as the maximum viewable area increases, the size of the elements on the screen decreases.

To read a web page is sometimes the equivalent of visiting an optician to get your eyesight examined.

I reviewed my own web page (http://truedesigns.com) the other day, and got quite upset with myself. Everything –  both text and graphics –  is too damn small, in my opinion.

Sure, it’s a limited medium. We design for an unknown browser width and height.  Keeping things small and somewhat limited seems reasonable.

Sure, pixellated designs are hip –  not only online. Numerous printed publications generously employ the power of the pixel.

And sure, I can see the reasons for tiny, pixellated graphics. Reduced download times, for example. And antialiased text is hard to read below around 10 points or so, which also speaks in favour of aliased graphics.

And there are small, pixellated designs that work well. Just look at k10k, to mention one.

So, what’s my point?

Well, first of all, the best interface is transparent. You should never have to spend time figuring out how to perform a task, but should have time to focus on the task itself –  be it reading a text, finding information or creating a new design. When you have perfect eyesight and still have to move ridiculously close to the screen to read everything, something’s wrong.

I’m not saying that all texts on the web should be set in 24 points, or that designers have to limit their creativity. I’m simply a wee bit tired with this trend of small, because at its worst, pixellated design can create unusable interfaces, that consume valuable user time.

PLANNING DESIGNS

It’s always tempting to rush into something new head first, without considering the consequences. We all know that a successful project starts with solid planning. This of course applies to all parts of the creative process.

When it comes to creating design sketches, I’m sure that most of us have met far too many “wannabe art director” – clients. After having created fifty different suggestions that are all rejected by the dreaded client, it seems more appealing to create an e – commerce application from scratch in assembler than to continue creating yet another design sketch.

There is, fortunately, a remedy for these unfortunate and draining situations.  The keywords are: planning and trust.

By planning, I’m referring to a focused creative process. It’s easier to fiddle around in Photoshop and create a large number of layout suggestions,  than to thoroughly plan a communication strategy, sketch down all ideas on paper, and after that start to methodically create “the right design.”

By trust, I’m referring to the trust that is built up between you and the client during the planning – stage. A golden rule is to never discuss specific layout suggestions early on in the process. Focus on discussing communication strategy, rather than choice of background colors. Make sure that the client understands your deep knowledge within the area of web development. Tell the client that web development is surrounded by severe limitations, and that you have others factors than just visual impact to consider when designing a site.

The aim is to provide the client with limited options. When the client is given fifty different design sketches, neither you, nor the client, really knows which one to pick.

It’s not a bad idea to discuss and decide the choice of basic color – schemes and overall maneuver – related details early on in the process. But when it comes to the fine – tuning, the client should have gained enough trust in your work not to interfere.

Ignorance is something we have to deal with on all levels of our lives, every day. But when it comes to planning design, we don’t have to deal with ignorance, if we make sure to give ourselves time to PLAN PROPERLY and build up TRUST.

CREATING DIGITAL INTERFACES

A large part of web development is to create smart user interfaces. Without an interface, a web site is nothing but binary garbage.

The word interface describes two things: the point where two systems meet,  and how they meet. The term can also be used as a verb, meaning “to communicate.”

An interface is the point of contact between two things.

The best interface is invisible. “Invisible” is, in this context, synonymous with “supportive.” An invisible interface allows the user to focus on performing a task, and not on how it should be performed. An invisible interface has a low or non – existent learning curve.

Good invisible interfaces often contain successful parallels with our physical surroundings, which dictate certain limitations. If this is not taken into consideration, the result is often confusing.

The user shouldn’t have to think, which means that the optimal interface is simple. Simplicity is obtained by eliminating unnecessary details and explanations.

To me, simplicity is providing the right options at the right time, no more,  no less. Unfortunately, the right time differs from person to person.  Simplicity is the hardest thing in the world to achieve. That’s why computer users are used to having the option of accessing some kind of help – system or descriptive pop – up menus in most applications. It’s a good idea to implement some sort of help system when creating digital interfaces.

Let’s take a brief, historical look at the development of the web, broken down into four steps:

  1. Static text publishing. The first web pages consisted of static texts that sometimes featured simple images.
  2. Designed publishing. Thanks to new functions and features of improved web browsers, web pages could be designed to a higher extent, and the web started to become more graphically attractive.
  3. Dynamic publishing. With highly improved web servers and web browsers, it was possible to create functioning Java – applets, advanced JavaScripts,  powerful database – driven sites etc.
  4. Dynamic application. This is where we are now. Web development is very similar to traditional application development.

In my opinion, the most two important parts of a web site are content and function. Since the web is a beautiful, wonderful mixture of art and technology, graphical aspects are not to be neglected, but the two main focuses of web users are either to retreive information or perform some sort of task. Regardless of the user focus or advanced technical aspects of a site,  the interface still plays the central role.

It’s almost impossible to create an interface that fits all users. Therefore,  it’s important to give the user a variety of interface options, making it possible to perform a given task in different ways.

Personalization is a cute buzzword. Up until today, many sites have used this interesting word to describe the option of, for example, changing the graphical appearance of the site. Some have taken it one step further and offered different sorts of maneuver – interface, often offering three selections:  high – tech (DHTML or Flash), standard (HTML with graphics), limited bare – bones (HTML sans graphics).

There are many yet unemployed possibilities hidden within this particular buzzword. Imagine a completely customizable site, where you could sort out the content you’re not interested in, change the interface any way you’d like etc. It’s all possible. The question is: does anyone want it?

Providing too many options is not the same thing as simplicity. It’s just as bad as not providing obvious options when needed.

The extremely talented people at halfbrain.com have managed to create web applications that look and feel like traditional software programs. If you ask me, this is the future of web sites.

It’s important to remember that the user’s –  not the programmer’s –  goals should shape the interface. By creating web sites that behave like traditional applications, we come closer to this.

On the other hand, while there are certainly positive traditions in the digital interface design of software applications, there is still plenty of room for new ideas! Personally, I think that voice – interaction will change interface – design a great deal. Imagine five or six simple voice – commands enabling you to “interface” an application or system. Instead of guessing how people want to go about their business, why not provide them with the means of dictating it completely by themselves?

After all, in an ideal scenario, the user is in full control of the application. Reaching that scenario –  to steal the smallest possible amount of time from our users by creating flawless interfaces –  has to be our goal.

THERE IS BEAUTY IN SIMPLICITY

Web development is a very technical process, but the users don’t care the least about technical details.

The user makes our work difficult. The user makes us realize that there is a non virtual reality beyond the endless lines of code, beyond the design sketches in Photoshop, and beyond malfunctioning web servers.

What reaches the user is what is visible on the screen. The user doesn’t care about the backend. The user mostly cares about function. And function is helped by good designs and smart, but invisible, technical solutions.

A few minutes ago, I stated that the best interface is invisible and simple.  Simplicity takes time.

A modern paradox is that it’s simpler to create complex interfaces because it’s so complex to simplify them.

Information architecture is the challenge of our time.

THE END

A few years ago, the Swedish company Emmaboda, who make glass products such as windows, published a successful series of ads in the press. I don’t remember the exact content of the ads, but the core message was that the best glass products are invisible. You knew that Emmaboda had succeeded when you didn’t notice their product, but instead admired the incredible view of the scenery outside the window.

The same philosophy applies perfectly to well designed interfaces

A Finnish architect was once interviewed by a young, quick reporter. The interview was aired live, and the reporter was getting quite stressed out by the architect’s slow and thoughtful responses to his questions.

When forty – five seconds remained of the interview, the reporter asked the architect to please speak a little faster, since they were running out of time.

The architect replied:

“No, it’s impossible for me to speak faster if you want me to say things that make sense, but I can, however, say less.”

The Finnish architect was well aware of the fact that it’s impossible to force quality.

Insights take time.

Finally, a quote from Marx.

Mr. Marx –  not Karl Marx, but Groucho Marx –  was once asked what his thoughts were on sexuality. Marx responded: “I think it’s here to stay.”

If you ask me about my thoughts on the web, the answer will be the same.

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