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Issue № 74

Usability experts are from Mars, graphic designers are from Venus

by Published in Industry, Graphic Design, Usability

There is an unarticulated war currently raging among those who make web sites.  Like the war between dark- and light-skinned blacks in Spike Lee’s School Daze, this conflict is one that only its participants recognize.  The war is not between commercial sites and experimental sites.  It’s not between “Bloggers” and “Flashers.”  This war is between usability experts and graphic designers.

In the usability corner, wearing the blue and purple underlined trunks, weighing in at just under 25K per gig… J-a-a-a-a-a-kob Nie-e-e-e-e-lsen, usability guru extroadinaire, with over 16 usability patents and several “lists of 10”—do’s, don’t’s, thou shalt’s, and thou shalt not’s.

And in the graphic design corner, wearing the greyscale trunks, weighing in at 500K per site (that’s dollars, not bytes)... Kioken(oken-oken-oken), firing clients left and right, and wielding Flash as if the plug-in itself were built into Joe Newbie’s genetic makeup.

Nielsen thinks today’s web is an advanced but ill-used database. Kioken thinks today’s web is a fledgling but ill-used multimedia platform.  And each side KNOWS that their view of the web will prevail.  Observe the (over)confidence:

Nielsen: “Boo.com has closed. Good riddance. Boo was one of the very few high-profile sites to launch in recent months that dared violate my design principles and aim for glitz rather than usability… It proves that overly fancy design doesn’t work.”

Gene Na (co-founder of Kioken): “We had to fire Sony the other week. They weren’t listening to us, so we let them go. We actually had to get rid of Bad Boy [Entertainment] in the beginning, but they straightened up and came back. So did Sony. What the client sometimes doesn’t understand is the less they talk to us, the better it is.  We know what’s best.”

Let the celebrity death match begin.  Gentlemen, I expect a good clean fight.  Come out with your hands up, and may the best web paradigm win.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?

I wager that after 15 rounds, after broadband, after standards compliance, after the increasingly mythical release of Netscape 6, both the usability experts and the graphic designers will still be standing.  The web is just too big for one paradigm to prevail.  Some sites will need intensive whiz-bang branding that Nielsen’s “principles” won’t allow.  Other sites will need moronically basic navigation and speedy download times that Kioken doesn’t care to provide.  Most sites will need some combination thereof.  So why the war?  Why can’t the usability experts and the graphic designers just love each other?

For better or worse, the divide between these two camps existed long before “new media,” and will continue to exist long after the web has become as commonplace as indoor plumbing.  “New media” merely brings this dichotomy into renewed focus because, well, it’s new.  We’re still developing the web’s vocabulary. Consequently, we’re still trying to get a handle on this “usability/design” conundrum, largely unaware of its primordial origins.  With that in mind, allow me to glibly and over-simplistically delineate the situation:

Usability/ Information Architecture == the masculine == the left side of the brain == doing == math/science == the rational == logical action == the articulatable == Mars.

Graphic Design == the feminine == the right side of the brain == being == art == the emotional == intuitive action == the inarticulatable == Venus.

It’s no surprise then, that Master Nielsen makes most of his dough writing and talking (the articulatable), whereas Kioken makes most of their dough designing (the inarticulatable). Indeed, to re-quote Na, “the less the client TALKS to us, the better it is.”

You can see why each group would quickly get on the other’s nerves. The usability experts find the graphic designers too touchy feely. “What do they mean they need to mess around with the look and feel to see what develops?  Why can’t they just give me a wireframe now?” The graphic designers find the usability experts too blunt and by-the-book.  “What do they mean graphics are just the icing on the cake?  Without graphic design, all you’ve got is a plan!”

Meta-Voodoo Usability

In the press and on the bulletin boards, the graphic designers tend to take a beating.  And not surprisingly.  They are the inarticulate ones, remember?  Thus you get articles that malign innovative designers without rightly discerning the purpose of their sites; or worse, you get outright dreck written by blind guides who wouldn’t know aesthetic appeal if it stripped bare and gave them a table dance.

But wait, the usability experts have their statistics!  It has been documented!  The users are on their side!  But what questions are these usability studies asking?  “Could you find it?”  “Were you able to accomplish it?”  “Articulate to us IN WORDS what you were able to DO.”  Such questions presuppose a “Martian” criterion for user experience.  If the site is a “Martian” site (logical, rational, left-brained), then it will score well on Nielsen’s usability test. If the site is a “Venusian” site (intuitive, emotional, right-brained), then it will score poorly on Nielsen’s usability test.  Were Nielsen to ask his subjects, “Write a short essay on how this site made you feel,” he would get dramatically different statistical results.  But of course, testing like that would be touchy-feely and unscientific.  To use his own jargon then, Nielsen-esque usability testing is, in the overall scheme of things, yet another form of “voodoo” usability.  It finds what it is looking for and ignores what it is unable to measure.

But what if Levis doesn’t have a huge database of products that it’s selling online?  What if Levis just wants people to feel that its vintage clothing is rugged and somewhat extreme? What if a successful site to Levis is a site that conveys an emotion, an attitude, a world-view?  In other words, what if Levis is branding?  Most usability tests are impotent to evaluate the success of a site in terms of conveyed emotion, because emotion is something that most users (and most humans) have difficulty articulating, particularly in response to multiple choice questions.  But just because a positive interactive experience can’t be charted doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

I Am The Lorax, I Speak for the Trees

The graphic designers sense that something is amiss, yet they are largely tongue-tied in their efforts to refute “the violence inherent in the system.”  Being young, punkish, rebellious youths (all tattooed, shorn, and pierced to the hilt as well), they lash out blindly, saying ill-conceived, inarticulate, un-endearing things. Thus Sr. Nielsen scores even more opportunities to indoctrinate the corporate movers and shakers, while an entire subculture of frustrated designers churns away in obscurity, thrashing their anti-capitalistic design statements into the cyber-void.

Until now.  The graphic design community is finally getting some poster boys: Kioken’s Joshua Davis, VolumeOne’s Matt Owens, Juxt Interactive’s Todd Purgason, and a host of other thoughtful professionals who are crafting graphic-intensive commercial sites that big clients are finding increasingly hard to resist.

The theorists and writers advocating graphic web design have been a little slower to emerge (for reasons already belabored above). Graphic design doesn’t exactly lend itself to a specific list of do’s and don’t’s.  User interface jedi Nathan Shedroff has a wonderfully conceived piece on interface seduction, but it’s still mighty abstract.  I’ve come up with my own list of ten fresh design styles, which I hope is a step toward developing a more articulate web design vocabulary.  And there is always the odd enlightened piece on graphic design from a classic “list of 10” perspective.

But writers about graphic design will never have as many easily articulatable “principles” as Jakob Nielsen (if they do, beware). Such inarticulatability is inherent to a vocabulary of the aesthetic. Graphic design on the web is no exception.  Still, just because a truth can’t be reduced to a sound bite, it nevertheless remains a truth.

I’ve Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now

Although the web began as a medium to exchange physics research papers, it seems naive to expect it to remain predominately text-based.  Usability experts bemoan the evolution of the web into something beyond a card catalog.  Their “speedy download” mantras belie their reluctance to jettison a word-based web.  But just because the web was born in text doesn’t mean it need remain in text.

CD-ROMs were born in gaming, and now the CD-ROM medium includes encyclopedias, experimental ambient environments, and virtual cookbooks.  You don’t hear old-school game designers saying, “The William Sonoma Guide to Fine Cooking CD-ROM is a total crock! There’s not even a hint of competition!  We all know that CD-ROMs are by their very nature competitive!”  How ludicrous.  Yet there are still old-school usability experts saying, “Don’t they know the web is about accessing information?  Who cares what it looks like? Where’s the content?”

I don’t think the web is going to turn into interactive TV, but neither will it remain a forum for exchanging physics outlines. And who wants it to, anyway?  For all their statistics, arguments, and lists, the usability experts are overlooking the fact that we, as humans, are not all Martians.  Indeed, there is a little Venus in us all, and some of us are nothing but Venusian.

Yes, I admonish all graphic designers to heed the few user interface experts who bother to critique your flash layouts without blindly dismissing your entire site.

But usability gurus, heed ye the words of hippy sage Joni Mitchell as she describes the mechanics of human interaction:

Rows and flows of angel hair,
Ice cream castles in the air,
Feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun.
They rain, they snow on everyone.
So many things I would’ve done
But clouds got in my way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.

Substitute “graphic design” for “clouds” and you get the idea. Unless usability experts are willing to admit that a 250K streaming flash file may indeed be the best solution for a branding site’s core page, those same experts may find themselves expounding in exile on Mars while the rest of us humans intuit the neo-web experience.

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