WebReference.com - Chapter 1 of Designing from Both Sides of the Screen, from New Riders (1/4) | WebReference

WebReference.com - Chapter 1 of Designing from Both Sides of the Screen, from New Riders (1/4)

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Designing From Both Sides of the Screen

Chapter 1: On Being a Butler

Think about something you love to do, and think how you feel when you're very focused on it. Maybe you love to play tennis, take photographs, play the guitar, ride motorcycles—whatever it might be. When you're immersed in that activity, you get a sense of flow where each action comes naturally from the last, you're focused on your goal (or on nothing at all), and you're not aware of the mechanics of what you're doing. Then suddenly something goes wrong with one of your tools. Your shoelace comes untied, the camera starts taking half a second longer to autofocus, a guitar string goes out of tune, the throttle sticks for a fraction of a second just when you want to speed up, and so on. These are all small bumps and "bobbles," and they're easy enough to compensate for. But they're annoying because they get in the way of what you care about. They break your flow.[1]

If these small problems keep happening, you try to fix the cause, annoyed that you have to spend your time fixing your tools. And if these flaws keep breaking your flow, eventually you get another tool. It's as if you grant your tools a certain amount of points, or "tolerance capital," based on how much you value the features they provide. Each time your tool breaks your flow, its capital declines. If the difficulty of using something starts to outweigh its value, you stop using it (unless you're forced to use it, say for your job). Unfortunately for most people, much of the computer technology in our lives hovers just above the break-even point, leaving us in a love-hate relationship. Yes, technology lets us do things we couldn't do before, but we often don't enjoy using it and we usually end up feeling more frustrated than pleased with the result.

Why does this happen? Most people who build technology want to build quality products and they want people to enjoy using them. We believe the main problem is that the technology industry is set up to compete in terms of the number of features, not the usefulness of products. The development team makes a list of features, marketers list those features on the promotion materials, and product reviewers make matrices comparing the number of features across competing products. In this world, more features is better than fewer features. Sometimes, a product will list "Easy to Use" as a feature, but since there are no criteria for such a claim (having a graphical user interface or a Web interface is apparently enough to qualify), just saying it's true doesn't help you compete.

Meanwhile, the mass media and trade publications have been complaining for years that technology is so complicated that people can't use it. This book's Preface includes excerpts from such articles going back to 1991, when Business Week ran a cover story titled, "I Can't Work This Thing." Ten years later, with many similar articles in between, U.S. News and World Report took on the same problem in its cover story, "High-Tech Overload." All these articles complained about the same thing—too many features and not enough focus on usability. Reducing features may seem risky, but there is evidence that people will be loyal to and spread the word about usable technology, converting their friends who complain about their annoying technology. Alan Cooper makes this case about Apple, whose loyal fans ardently stuck by it, even as the company charged higher prices for a platform that had fewer applications. Prior to the debut of the Palm Pilot, there had been many attempts to market a handheld organizer device using handwriting recognition, all of which failed with great fanfare (for instance, Go, Apple's Newton). Now the Palm is widely recognized as one of the most useful and best-designed technology products available. Walter Mossberg, the influential and respected technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, raves about the Palm, saying it has a "brilliant user interface."

© 2001 The New Yorker Collection from cartoonbank.com. All Rights Reserved.

Wouldn't it be nice if people using your technology said as many nice things about it as they say about the Palm? You can make this happen by paying attention to the user's flow and doing everything you can to remove those small bobbles along the way. Making a feature flow is just as important as implementing the feature itself. Since most projects are organized by listing features and checking them off when they are done, you can work within this system by creating a concept of "ease-of-use features," which are features that remove the bobbles in other features. A feature isn't done until its associated ease-of-use features are done. Before starting a project, the engineers, designers, marketers, and management have to decide whether they are willing to devote time and energy to ease-of-use features instead of "check off" features that most people won't use. You have to decide whether you want to build something people really want to use rather than something people will buy once and complain about.

1.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes extensively about the concept of flow, for example in his 1991 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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Copyright Pearson Education and
Created: January 3, 2002
Revised: January 3, 2002

URL: http://webreference.com/authoring/design/usability/chap1/