— 21 May 2003 —

As usual, synchronicity is playing

As usual, synchronicity is playing a major hand in my life. I used to be able to see patterns in actions and events, then make cognitive leaps as to the eventual outcome. (Yeah, I just got lucky.:P)

But now I only seem to be able to notice things when I am sick. And, oh baby, am I sick now. I hate colds. But that’s not the point of this post. I read four unrelated posts on usability blogs this morning.

1) A post on self-reliance at The Elegant Hack
2) A post on relationships and compromise at Peterme.com
3) A post on Usability no longer Differentiates at Diary of a Superfluous Man

4) A comment on the above by Ron Zeno which states the following: “From my understanding of usability, no one is able to demonstrate they are able to consistently produce usable products. So, discussing going beyond this is just idle speculation at best, and statements like ‘Everybody agrees that the products we design should be usable.’ are meaningless when people don’t know how to make them usable.”

This is why I (and many others) think that usability does work, probably. I think usability (testing) and user/human-centered design work part way. If we ignore the past because we either hate/fear consistency, or understand that consistency for the sake of consistency can take you only so far, then we ignore opportunities to understand why those past choices were made. Around here it is called a “Lessons Learned” document which is meant to be passed along to the next project (which of course no one ever reads).

If we follow too much down the path of self-reliance, forgoing all else because it is not in the nature of what is being designed, we again miss an opportunity to better the design based on what worked and what didn’t on a previous iteration, or similar product/service.

So then I get to relationships and compromise. The post on peterme is more about love, but I apply it to design and usability as well. I think 95% (made up percentage) of what we do as designers/usability testers is relationships and compromise. I may make a perfect design that fashions itself both after what the user expects to do, and what the business expects them to do, but the technology cannot support it. So do you wait until technology catches up with what the user needs to do, or do you implement a partial solution? Business says partial solution. Designers/usability testers who wish to remain employed agree.

This is why it is so difficult to produce a usable product (based on the objectives for usability of course). We can design products/services that lift the user to a higher state of well-being, but if it can’t be built what is really the point?

The point is what Jonathan at superfluous states: Usability no longer differentiates. Users are getting smarter in the mediums designers/usability testers are drawn to. Technology doesn’t keep the same pace. So we are left with compromise that affects the user in an often unfortunate way. If it is not effective, efficient, and satisfactory we have (by our own definition) failed. But I say we only failed that moment. We immediately start figuring out how not to fail the next time.

How can we leverage technology to meet the user’s needs? We are the Threshold Guardians. One foot in the past, one foot in the future, one hand building the relationship between business needs and technology constraints, and one hand lifting up the user.

We cannot do it all at the same time and do it well. At least I cannot. So we strive for the best balance possible given the situation. We aren’t able to consistently produce usable products because of this balance. Business is starting to care more about making usable products/services, but technology still bases success on “it works on my machine.” Users are becoming better users. Partly because we are gaining ground in helping them, partly because they are gaining more experience with the mediums. (Yes I made a generality statement.)

It always comes down to us, and always will. My lack of energy because of being sick is clouding my point even more than usual. I guess I want you to keep trying to build on the success of the past, but be willing to throw it al away for a better design. Don’t agree with, “They did it like this so we have to do it like that for consistency.” Concentrate on building “soft skills” like relationship building, conflict management, change management, and team building. And do it all with an eye on where you want to be in the future. Design knowing that this is yet another iteration over a long (hopefully) period of time. This is the craft part of what we do. And it is the part we should put most of our energy into getting right.

Screw design techniques. Screw a better way to presentation through CSS. Get good at defining the need for change, understanding the desires of the business, technologists, and users, and build the best deliverable you can.

Woo, cold medicine is kicking in. I’ll stop now.

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