It’s all about the Concept

This editorial is one very dear to my heart, as it touches on the cornerstone of good design and something I miss in all to many HCI designer’s work: the concept. In order to keep to the same points as in the original, I have done little editing from the original.

How can a design review be conducted on static interfaces?

What constitutes good design?

Good design is harder and harder to find these days. It is disheartening when people present a single window or Web page and ask for an evaluation, especially when the question is: “Is this good design?” How can a design review be conducted on static interfaces? What is possible to evaluate? What constitutes good design? Is it possible to judge a design from static screens?

As we said earlier—in fact way earlier in an article co-written with Wendy Mackay in March 2001—when discussing the importance of contextualizing design, the issue is not whether a design is good, but is it a good design of…what?
When starting to review a single screen, your heuristic-laden ego itches to pour out criticisms. A copy command on the file menu! Are you nuts?! You don’t put buttons on the bottom left! Serif fonts! Are you mad? Where did you get that typeface? Spinners are so 1990s! Script typefaces on mobile devices? Split buttons! Are you sure about that? But instead of continuing that tirade, let’s pause for a moment and ask: design of what?
First off, let’s suggest some good questions. Do you really know the context to start judging a design correctly? What aspect of design are you reviewing? The visual design? The information design? The layout design? The interaction design? How do you “see” an interaction design in a static page?
There are of course many ways to represent all of the above. We’re interested in how you do it. Do you divorce these aspects of design, or do you combine them in certain ways? Which combinations have been most successful for you?
It’s difficult to divorce one from the others: All aspects of design must work together in a unified concept. That concept involves rich knowledge preceding the design activity: of the end users, their background, their tasks, their mental models. It doesn’t stop there: You then need to understand your engineering constraints: what your developers’ toolkit can and can’t do, what sort of custom code your design will require, and whether your design needs to absolutely follow standards for future evolution and code maintenance, or if you’re able to leap into new territory and design a new widget or two. Further rich knowledge that can and should influence the conceptual design: understanding the business model of the company producing the software. Is this a demo? Can it cut corners, or is it production quality? Is it a step in a long line of .dot releases? Is it the first version? Can you take risks? Do you need to reach feature and usability parity with other competitors, or do you need to excel and claim best-in-class?
Before you can understand how to design, you need to understand design. The conceptual design is more than any one facet of design; it’s a gestalt that is more than the sum of the parts. Taking this perspective, how do you evaluate that single screen?—Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

This is a draft version (preprint) of material which was later published in substantially the same form in my Rant column in ACM’s magazine. The published version is a copyrighted feature of Communications of the ACM. All requests for reproduction and/or distribution of the published version should be directed to the ACM.

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