Users and usability

I am indebted to the writings of Don Norman. His seminal text The Design of Everyday Things should be essential reading for all designers. Once read you tend to see things differently (conceptual change) and put the needs of the user first. The book has many entertaining examples such as the boot manufacturer who gives away soothing antiseptic cream in the knowledge that they have designed a boot that will scrape the skin off your feet. Why not design a better boot instead? My personal thumbs up to Asics for designing the most comfortable running shoe I have worn. I understand they put more of their budget into the research and development of the primary function of the product. Other manufacturers may spend more on marketing the fashion aspects of the shoe. The excellent exhibition ‘Communicate’ held at the Barbican London in 2005 inadvertently demonstrated a trend (amongst some designers) towards self-obsessed stylists hell-bent on innovations within the aesthetics of visual language. A kind of desperanto (sic). This got design a bad reputation as an elitist occupation producing inconsequential and expensive items. Many labelled the ‘design’ affectations of the 80s and 90s (the non-design style decades) designerisms. Communication should aim to help people understand and use information. Entertainment can be a part of engaging the viewer but it is not the sole purpose. Who is being entertained anyway – other designers? You got the feeling that some designs were focused on inclusion in the next design annual. Design commentator David Sless is concerned over graphic design’s self-obsessed, almost incestuous, appreciation of its own qualities, which ‘valorise individual talent – turning people into heroes.’ As my colleague, Hamish Muir, has stated ‘it’s too easy to criticise without being constructive’. What is past is past and we should look to the future and how we as designers and design educators can improve our practice and as a consequence make the world a better place to live. Let’s be more considerate and think of our fellow users.

Successful information design relies upon knowledge of the user. A proposed solution should be tested on a sample of intended users and the feedback used to inform the necessary alterations needed to accommodate their needs. The final design will have considered aesthetics, usability, understand-ability and accessibility. The best schemes will monitor subsequent reaction to what has been produced.

Usability is the ease with which something can be used. This is dependent on how easy the experience is to learn; how easy something can be used once learned; how easy the function is to remember; and how easy errors are to rectify.

The term user-friendly can be described as the degree to which a product is immediately useful and understandable. Utility can be defined as the extent to which something serves a purpose. Utilitarian design supports the task at hand and affords the user ease of use. The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c80-15BC) suggested that design should be useful, durable and beautiful.

User-centred information design
The author Jorge Frascara questions ‘universal aesthetic paradigms’ and suggests the real need is to design for people and that the design of new graphic forms is not an end in itself. Designing information for specific users requires designers to be aware of the following factors: geographic; demographic (gender, age, race, nationality, religion, and marital status); socio-economic (income, occupation, education, class); psycho-cultural (temperamental characteristics, values, goals, individual context, history, expectations, priorities, feelings, preferences and differences); cognitive abilities (effected by environment, age, education, personal skills, occupation). This requires consultation with: sociologists, psychologists, technologists, anthropologists, educational theorists and marketing specialists. Quite a tall order and I don’t know many designers that would go to these lengths. Maybe worth a thought when knocking up the next funky global brand!

Professional responsibility
Design has the power to seduce, persuade and cajole. How often do we question the effect of our actions? If consumers are taking legal action against large corporations for not warning them over the dangers of smoking or eating unhealthily, how long before they approach individual designers over their lack of responsibility? We need to be able to detect and understand information in order to act upon it. Graphic designers need to question their motivation as to whether they seek aesthetic innovation or the communication of ideas. Frascara goes further in his assertion that ‘graphic communicators owe to the public the creation of understandable messages…to engage purposefully in the creation of obscure or ambiguous communications is abusive’. A new breed of designers such as David Berman, Lovely as a Tree and Zero Fee are taking on the baton from previous generations (concerned with design’s responsibility) such as Ken Garland (First Things First), David King, Geoff White (profiled in Octavo 2) and Josef Muller-Brockmann.

Social responsibility
Designers have a social responsibility to communicate vital information with clarity so that even under unfavourable conditions information may be acted upon. Areas of concern are: access of information for old people, the visually impaired (see ISTD/RNIB Inclusive Design) and people with learning difficulties; the design of safety, medical and warning labels and signs; the design of forms that ensure access to benefits; and the design of instructions.

Ethical communication
Communication of information isn’t something that can be imposed; it is reliant upon users’ interaction, interpretation and understanding. Being surrounded by signs and symbols isn’t necessarily an indication of an information age but possibly a saturation of graphics. As Tufte has said: ‘Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design’. Frascara implores designers to view the user’s understanding of information as a paramount concern: ‘…to be understood and not just listened to…[use] the language of the audience in both its style and content…the ideal form of human communication is dialogue’.

Making life better
Information Design contributes to improvements in infrastructure such as road signage systems and the design of educational materials. Education and training empowers people to improve through access to information. Frascara suggests that ‘access to information should be regarded as a human right’ and that information designers could ‘build bridges between information and people’. The design of utilitarian items such as bills and forms, underground maps, telephone directories should emphasise access to information with the minimum of fuss.  The information designer aids transparency and clarity and promotes the habit of being well informed. People who are better informed are more able to deal with the complexities of life.

Visibility and portability
We can’t memorise everything we see, hear or experience. We need external visual reminders as to how things operate and feedback on actions taken. We all have our individual methods to remind ourselves of future tasks. I-phones have calendars, which can be synced to webmail, and other designated people so you and others can check what you are doing and where you have to be without memorising information. This is something I learnt to my cost in solely keeping a desk diary. I was at a meeting in one location when I was asked whether I was attending another meeting at the same place that day. I replied that I’d have to go back to my office to check!

Affordances are the ways in which objects imply their use through their physical form, for example a saucer affords a cup or a handle a hand. Information designers need to ensure that the objects and communications they produce for human interaction are understandable and imply how they are to be used.

Conceptual models, conventions and standards
A conceptual model is an existing paradigm that is understood by a majority of people. A good example of this would be a car. Once the operations of a car are understood the concept holds true for all cars. Designers should gain knowledge of prevalent cultural conventions that apply to specific users. A typical convention is hot tap left, cold tap right. Taps are also turned anti-clockwise to increase the flow of water. Unless there is a pressing need to change the existing standard a designer shouldn’t challenge the convention just for the sake of being different.

Mapping is the relationship between two or more things. We understand best when there is a natural mapping between an action and a reaction. Where two light switches are side by side, we expect a left switch to turn on a left light and a right switch to turn on a right light.

Visual and aural Feedback
People need feedback to their actions, if they can’t see an effect they deduct nothing has happened and repeat the action. Sound also provides feedback – the microwave bell tells us that our food is ready. At the office beeps and shrill noises signal computer errors.

Design for error and failure
User-centred design considers how to minimise confusion and error. A sensitively designed product will guard against anything seriously occurring as a result of an incorrect action. Mistakes will happen and people should not be punished for a lack of comprehension.

Internal and external information
An external catalyst often triggers our internal knowledge of something. When information is readily available and exists in accessible form in the world the need to memorise diminishes. In order to travel any great distance we rely on information existing in the world that can be read and understood. We do not rely on memorising a journey but use maps and signs as external reminders.

It is thought that memory only stores partial descriptions of things sufficient to allow for recall at a later stage. Trying to memorise information is not efficient. Memory doesn’t necessarily operate in a structured fashion with ideas neatly filed away for convenient retrieval at a later date. To remind ourselves of key information we transfer information into the external world via diaries, notes, reminders, memos and calendars. Another useful technique is to relate the reminder to a physical event for example placing a book against the door that you want to take with you. You are providing a visual signal to a memory and a message. The message for information designers is not to rely on users’ memory but to provide them with visual prompts.

Who is the average user?
Designers are users too, albeit not always typical users.  Designers understand the things they produce and the codes they use, others may not. Unless there is interaction with users, products will only satisfy the designer and their client (who may not be a typical user either). Developing an appreciation of the user from consciously analysing and deconstructing products and communications will enable the student and professional designer to attune themselves to the needs of their fellow human. Don Norman expects his students to visit the homes of the potential users of the products they are producing. The product design company Seymour Powell do exactly this and film users struggling with products. They then show these films to the company directors of the firms producing these products. Design is an activity, which should plan and predict these potential future difficulties before going into production. It is a bit of an eye opener that this doesn’t seem to happen. There is more of an attitude of getting the product out there and fixing it later. Designers should allow a part of the process to monitor the effectiveness of the design once in operation.

User-centred computer software
The best programmes are the ones that build on intuition and existing knowledge. The awareness of the computer diminishes and the focus centralises on the user’s individual purpose and not the operating mechanism.

Make life difficult
These are some situation where designing for a lack of usability might be an advantage such as security doors and dangerous equipment.

The anti-usability guidelines
(After an idea by Don Norman)
To make life difficult follow these guidelines:
1 Make the things operating devices invisible
2 Provide unnatural mappings ie little relationship between operating devices and the things they operate and create randomness.
3 Make actions difficult
4 Provide no feedback
5 Require precision in operation and timing
6 Allow no room for error or retrieval
7 Rely on the user’s ability to memorise functions

The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
User-centred Graphic Design, Jorge Frascara
Toothpicks and Logos, John Heskett