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Why usability needs design?

User Lab (Social Media Portal) - 04 July 2005

Why usability needs design?

John Knight, director at User-Lab discusses the relationship between designers and usability professionals and why they need to work with each other

Three years ago I carried out some research on the usability profession. At the time there was an ongoing battle between designers and usability people. Designers were angry at being blamed for poor usability and the lack of sophistication that characterised the 'usability movement'. Most of their ire was directed at Jakob Nielsen, who they argued was anti-design. Back then usable designs tended to be pretty ugly to look at and use in the long term.Photograph of John Knight, director, User-Lab

Kurt Cloninger was one who took up the cause of good design noting “There is a war between usability experts and graphic designers”.  Fortunately, there were few fatalities although the backdrop to this antagonism was the fallout from the dot com boom. Both designers and usability people were suffering from a downturn and naturally enough scapegoats were sought. Usability people were especially sensitive about showing their worth through often unconvincing return on investment cases.

The designers were perhaps the more sophisticated party in terms of their arguments. For example, Paul Wigely said at the time that usability consultants “stifle innovation, misunderstand new technology and generally pervert the noble course of Web design to their own maladjusted (and predominantly text based) ends”. Designers had a better understanding of the business.

In contrast to designers usability people were defensive. John Rhodes argued at the time that “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” sells usability. In essence usability identified problems but could not solve them and design created problems but could not identify them. Thus design and usability were locked in an unhappy marriage.

As the market improved so the design and usability communities began to talk to each other again. In some cases, people began to appreciate the expertise of each other. Yes, usability people can still be jaw droopingly unsophisticated and designers can still be entirely selfish. I had forgotten how little things had changed when I went to a usability event recently.

A speaker denounced the Nike Website because it didn't sell trainers online and had games. The notion that Nike have a deeper understanding of their teenage audience than a white middle class usability guru seemed incredulous. Apoplectic I pointed out that buying trainers online is not the cool thing to do and that Nike knew exactly what it was doing.

Fortunately I think this lack of sophistication is on the way out. There has been a discernable toning down from the Nielsen/Norman group in favour of design. Last year Donald Norman published a book on Emotional Design. Touching the zeitgeist of all things emotional he had to justify his volte-face from cognitive-rationalism:

“I didn’t take emotions into account I addressed utility and usability, function and form, all in a logical, dispassionate way. But now I’ve changed. Why, in part because of new scientific advances in our understanding of the brain and how emotion and cognition are thoroughly intertwined” (p.008).

He admits that his dispassion led to “a well-deserved criticism from designers: ‘if I were to follow Norman’s prescription, our designs would be usable – but they would also be ugly’“ (p. 008). And this is where it gets interesting. More and more the roles of designer and usability person are interchangeable. In there place is a growing number of individuals and companies that are equally at home with Mental models as they are with product semantics.

This change is just about attitude it also affects what designer/usability people are offering to their clients. Positioned between hard analysis and creative design this perspective has a business case based on risk management and innovation.  This new breed is looking where the big players are going.

And the direction is integrating research and design. Nokia, IDEO, Phillips and Braun all develop products with user-centric methods in tandem with innovation and good design.  Rather than going native (as I have been accused of by usability people) design is where the action is. Companies that do not have competencies in both areas are the ones that will suffer.  In the future the hard core usability police who come in a tell you what you already know will become a thing of the past. This is good for everyone. At last usability people get to influence design throughout the lifecycle. Designers get their wicked problems and trade-off solved and people get good design: accessible, usable and engaging.

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