Category Archives: About design

UX within the open source community

Right. I’m going to use Git hub. OK? Never mind why, I have to use it and I’m actually kind of psyched to try it out, since I’m not a programmer and not really used to it, but since it sounds like a good idea, here I go.

I’m greeted with a tutorial, which is pretty cool. I go to step 1, and it’s this:

Super! So, I click the link and, for reasons not immediately apparent, I’m no longer at github.com, I’m now at git-scm.com. OK, fine, I’m not frazzled by a different URL and completely different website layout and graphics, because, hey, there’s a big box that reads:

Hey, that’s clear enough, latest version is 1.7.7.4 and I have a Mac, so here I go. Click.

What the…? So… let’s see. Latest version is 1.7.7.4, but when I clicked the Mac icon I got three files, one is labeled 1.7.7.3, so I know it’s not the latest and the description mentions Snow Leopard, but I have Lion. Does it matter? No idea.

Sure, I could have read the release notes, but who does that?

Also, what the hell are the other files? There’s no mention to them anywhere, thus far. Do I need them? What do they do? What are “Finder Droplets”? I have no idea.

OK, I’ll bite. I click the file and get sent to another page. There’s a QR code in the middle of the page. I have absolutely no idea what it does and I suppose it doesn’t matter, because there isn’t a legend or any explanation. I guess you have to be in on it to understand.

I download the DMG, mount it, run the installer. No sweat. It’s not horribly difficult, but I’ve been through this many times, with different software and I always wonder… who makes this? Why do they feel that this makes sense?

This, to me, is one of the problems with open source stuff. It’s a great community that puts out great software, but at the same time, the experience sucks. It’s always fragmented. You have to get this thing from here, that thing from there. Then, you need to configure some obscure stuff on your computer. You jump through different sites, which all look different and, sooner or later, you land on a directory listing longer than your forearm where you have to go through weird filenames to try to figure out which you should be using. In this example, as it turns out, I was told to use 1.7.7.4 and could only get 1.7.7.3, but, luckily enough, there weren’t dozens of weirdly labelled packages, such as alpha, beta, rc, and what have you. It’s ok, I’ve been around enough, I know these things, I’ve setup my share of Gentoo-based Squid proxies and mail servers, but it’s not about me.

It’s about everyone else. It’s not by accident that I emboldened that sentence up there. If you’re not in on it, your screwed. You’re going to eventually give up or spend an afternoon reading documentation to do something basic.

Software should be about the people; people use most software – only a fraction of it is just used by machines – and even though the Open Source community has improved a bit in what comes to user experience, it still remains a paradoxically closed universe that warmly welcomes hackers (yes, I mean actual hackers, not Hollywood hackers), and hobbyists, but leaves out the common Joe.

PS: I work surrounded by brilliant web developers and systems guys and I’m sure most of them would just roll their eyes at this post. Which just goes to show how right I am.

Do you want to be a designer? Study computer science! Wait, what?!

So, I was casually browsing the web when a job ad caught my eye. It was an offer by Google UK for an Interaction Designer. Now, I generally consider that these days people managing projects have gotten into the habit of overly dissecting design. You have the Interaction Designer, the Interface Designer (he does what, only the bits of the interface which aren’t interactive?), the Motion Designer, the User Experience Designer (wait, isn’t design all about the user experience?), but I got curious and read on.

Google says a bunch of things and then defines the job:

“The role: Interaction Designer

As a UI Designer, you will work closely with engineers and product managers throughout all stages of the product cycle. You are a critical thinker with a good design sense, a strong technical background, and an eye for making things better. Interaction Designers work on projects that have an impact on the web experience of millions of Google users.”

So, ok, they need a good interface designer for their team. Great. What would you expect the requirements to be? Let me help you there… Google wants you to, basically, be a computer engineer.

I know, right? I’d expect them to actually prefer a designer, but the line reads:

“Strong academic background in human-computer interaction or related field preferred (BS or MS in Computer Science or related field a big plus).”

I’m wondering if  this explains why, generally speaking, Google interfaces suck so bad. I mean, GMail is marginally usable, but I’ve had an account there since the time when you needed an invite to get in and I still struggle to find the compose button. But, then again, if they prefer to hire computer scientists to do interface design, I really shouldn’t be surprised.

…and don’t even get me started on Android…

Design, motherfucker, do you speak it?

Jules Winnfield’s speech in Brett’s apartment has become the stuff of legend as Pulp Fiction quickly left the world of mere films and entered into pop culture.

A frightened punk, caught in the middle of lunch, is too nervous to answer any thing other than “what?”, back at all the questions Samuel L. Jackson’s character is firing at him.

(…)
Brett: What?
Jules: What country are you from?
Brett: What? What? Wh – ?
Jules: “What” ain’t no country I’ve ever heard of. They speak English in What?
Brett: What?
Jules: English, motherfucker, do you speak it?

Poor Brett ends up as dead as his friend on the couch, but that’s beside the point.

There’s a certain quality to good dialogue, good text, great writing that makes it easy to remove sentences from context and apply them liberally in other situations.

You can easily say “I find your lack of kerning… Disturbing!”, and you’ll saying much more than simply “your letters are out of whack”.

Such is the case with the title of this text.

After 15 years working as a designer for the web I still think people fail to understand it.

Design, that is.

Sure, one can’t expect everyone to understand everyone else’s work, but I believe there’s something to gain from better understanding design. The contribution of a good designer to almost any project can be priceless and sometimes signify the difference between following a predictable path and veering off into the unexpected.

And I think doing unexpected things is an important factor in innovating.

Being that I am approaching 40, a certain amused quietness has come over me and I just sort of quietly chuckle to myself whenever someone presents a set of wireframes and utters the words: “nevermind the look of it, this still has no design”.

I may just smile and wave at these shards of ignorance – and even understand that the people uttering them are doing so for the benefit of the audience – but I must confess that once in a while, I still feel like jumping on a table and just going on a Tarantinesque tirade which could only end in tears and gunfire.

“Everybody cool, I’m a designer! If any of you fucking pigs mention design one goddamn more time, I’mma execute every motherfucking last one of you!

Design is a fucking process, not some block of butter you spread on things all buttery-like! And it pretty much started when y’all threw your asses in a little air conditioned room and started tossing ideas around! See… that’s part of the process, right there… the design process, motherfucker!

If you don’t understand programming, you stay out of the way of the programmer, right? Then why is it that, if you don’t understand design, you won’t get out of the goddamn way of the designer, bitch?

Now, see… designers do crazy shit. That’s the point. If you have a guy that just throws colors and shit on your wireframes, then shoot the motherfucker, he’s not a designer, he’s a decorator, just throwing pillows and curtains around; go get the motherfucker who designed the wireframes, cause he’s your designer.

Not good at the visual side of things? Then get someone who is and make a design team. Or, hell, just shoot the wireframe guy and get a motherfucker who’s good at everything. Good luck, by the way.

Is this really that hard to get? You begin using design when you start using design thinking, that’s – and pardon my french here – a divergent cognitive process. What that means is that while your ass is going all “we should do this, because it’s been done before and it worked”, a design thinker will go: “fuck that shit, let’s raise puppies to lick our users every time they fill out our form!”

And you’ll all go: “whaaa…?”, but then, someone will take that stupid fucking idea and change it to “let’s mail our users a picture of a puppy, if they help us out with the survey”, and then soon enough, you’ll be at: “let’s create a badge system by which users get awarded a cute animal badge every time they do something for us and we’ll set up an online collection page for people to keep and show off their badges”.

BAM, motherfucker!

Because you let one crazy-ass designer into your team at an early stage you just increased your chances of actually having a cool product. Now, keep that motherfucker involved! Stop building your goddamn product all the way until you need visual design and then, at the last minute, asking some sorry-ass intern to “put a coat of paint” on a crappy product with a stupid layout built on top of some boring as fuck wireframes!¹

I mean, don’t y’all have a fucking Mac and a motherfucking iPhone in your pocket? Do you think those toys have gotten into your pants, no pun intended, simply because of a kickass business plan? Hell no! Those are design babies, right there, those things are so motherfuckingly designed they’re oozing with the stuff.

What was Apple’s motto again? Ah, yes… “Think different”.

That’s what motherfucking design is, right there: think different.

“Hell, shit…!” you might say, if your momma had raised you right, “if that’s the case, then why did I hire a designer? Hell, everyone can be a designer!”

Right, right, I see what you did there. Now, listen: designers are trained, right? They don’t have to be trained in a motherfucking University, but they are trained, they know the process, they cultivate their minds, they are curious, they absorb crap you wouldn’t even notice was there. Your number crunchers crunch numbers, your developers discuss languages and think of databases, right? So you need a design guy who’s trained to do design, it’s all because of the “think different” thing.

The same way an engineer will look at a bridge and tell you how it was built, a designer looks at the world and wonders what the thought process behind everything was. That’s why we’re so fucking annoying, always with the questions and then, when you least expect it, we’ll just go: fuck it, that bit is boring me, shut the fuck up. We want to know if you slipped in the bathroom, banged your head and invented the flux capacitor, we don’t exactly need to know how it works.

See, designers are like harvesters of ideas, collectors of crap they may find useful later, and that’s why they will usually bring stuff up that most other people will find odd or out of topic. The unexpected. But then, you’ve been paying attention, right? So you already know that shit.

Then, theres specialization, right? You need that too: visual design, industrial design, whatever, what I’m really trying to get across to your sorry ass is that the design process behind everything should be the same, and it’s that process that’s the real value of design.

Not the colors, not the symmetry, not the perfectly indented CSS, it’s the whacky thought process within the confines of a well-defined process. Shit, I’m impressing myself!

So, here we go: define the problem, research that motherfucker, brainstorm the fuck out of it – and I mean, get in a room with people and take off the gloves, make sure the stupidest idea of them all ends up in the final list, prototype it, test the prototypes and pick one and just fucking do it. Finally, look at the goddamn result and sketch out some rules; remember: design is repeatable, it came out of the fucking Industrial Revolution, for fuck’s sake!

Look at the “fucking do it”, bit, do you see that? Do you, bitch?! Because there, right there is the only bit you usually think of as design, that’s the bit you think design is. Look at all the shit you’re missing! That’s the specialized bit, that’s where you need your graphic designer to come up with awesome visuals for your  website or iPhone app, or whatever the hell you’re trying to make money out of.

For the rest of it, you need a design thinker. Most good designers are great design thinkers. They spend their lives looking everywhere, grabbing bits of info, collecting stuff, building a visual culture, an experience portfolio. Some people are computer geeks, some are sci-fi geeks, designers tend to be everything geeks. Ah, fuck it, I’m repeating myself.

Finally: how dare you to call yourself a designer and not know this shit? Seriously, motherfucker, are you fucking kidding me? Are you going around saying you’re a designer and that you just like pretty things, and colors and patterns? I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who claim such bullshit and refuse to take responsibility for what should be the coolest motherfucking profession in the world, right now.

Own up, bitches!”

Me, designing stuff.
Me, designing stuff.

So, rant over, what can I tell you? Well, if you’re a designer, be whacky, be crazy, be funny. My greatest design professor once looked at some crap I’d constructed out of cardboard and said: “This is funny, there’s humor in your work. Even though it’s crumbling apart because you suck at paper & paste stuff, the idea is pretty good”, and then he said something I always try to remember when I’m working: “Never loose that humor”.

A lot of people don’t like a lot of things, but most people like being amused, people share funny stuff. It doesn’t have to be hilarious, but you’ll be better off making someone smile than frown, that’s for sure.

Try irony in your work, suggest awesomeness. Be involved, talk to people, let them know you can help.

Sit quietly in meetings until you feel a sudden silence then, make a wild suggestion. You’re not the accountant, you don’t have to be serious and rational, it’s your job to explore other options, if you’re there to explore the same options as everyone else, then you bring no real value as a designer.

Absorb stuff, look at everything, be annoying, ask people if you can try their stuff out, look at their gadgets, draw on their notebooks.

Don’t take notes, notes are for project management consultants. Just get stuff into your head, shake it on a regular basis (I suggest to music, but feel free to improvise), and allow that mishmash to influence your daily reality.

In short: be creative, you’ll notice that most people aren’t and that is your strength. Collaborate with creative people (you’ll find them in the oddest places and a lot of them aren’t doing creative work). Fool around. Turn ideas on their head. Joke. Make fun of yourself.

And finally: help the grey people, they don’t know any better, but they deserve love too.

¹ If you take nothing else away from this little extravangaza, at least understand this paragraph, please.

A brief introduction to Design

Design is a multifaceted discipline with many specializations. It is, by definition, a core discipline to every human activity.

People have been designing since they could use utensils, maybe even before: problem solving is at the center of the Design thought process, at its genesis and at its end.

Over the decades, Design has become more defined and compartmentalized; it has gained specialization.

Design has become a profession and Designers have acquired a set of abilities and knowledge, developed methodologies and processes that allow them to pick up the pieces, work with all involved and, keeping a bird’s eye view, help solve the puzzle.

Despite its many specializations, Design is essential. Graphic Designers, Industrial Designers, Interaction, Web and Motion Designers should always be, first and foremost, Designers.

The same way GPs, OB-GYNs and Plastic Surgeons are all, in essence, doctors, specialized Designers should never forget what Design, as a whole, is about.

This seems obvious, I know, but I’ve heard people say “I’m not a Designer, I’m a Web Designer”, which makes absolutely no sense. Specialization should never annul base knowledge, method and philosophy.

Historically, Design is the solving of a problem by giving form to a functioning concept which can be repeatable. Although I like to think of Design as something inherently human, it started to be defined as a professional activity by the drivers of the Industrial Revolution and was heralded as a way to create cheap, repeatable products that were, above all, highly functional, while looking as good as possible (“looking good” being a highly debatable subject).

It’s ironic how, in recent years, the term “design”, then, has been used as a substitute for expensive and exclusive. Designer clothes, designer furniture or designer jewelery are all meant to be exclusive products for wealthy people, often times made to be “good looking” more than useful or even usable. The antithesis of Design, one might say.

The two main components of Design are form and function, with none taking precedence; both are equally important and should be a consideration from early on. However, the mass production-oriented world that begat Design as a professional activity also had a great influence on its philosophy, which lingers to this day. The outcome of a Design project should be repeatable; if it’s an object, it should be possible to mass produce it, if it’s a communication piece it should be printable in quantity or broadcast, if it’s a website, it should be easy to develop for and expand on. A set of rules and guidelines should always come out of a Design project, helping others to repeat it or improve on it.

If you’re creating an unrepeatable object, you’re probably making Art, not Design. If you’re being exclusive, you’re defeating the purpose and are more akin to a Craftsman (yes, or woman), than a Designer.

Nothing of what I just said means the Design methodology cannot be applied to other fields (I started out defending Design is in everything we do), it just means Design is more than a methodology: it’s a mean to connect people by making certain objects available in the right time and social context, with the right function and wrapped in just the right form.

Something else to read

Since I’m not swimming in time to write stuff, here’s something else somone wrote and you should read.

In this instance, that someone is Bruce Mau, one of the most successful, prolific and indeed insightful designers of our time and the text you must not miss is his “incomplete manifesto for growth”.

Take a deep breath and read it. It should, at the very least, make you think a bit. Here’s the link.

5 things to keep in mind when designing a user interface

For the last two and a half years I’ve been, essentially, an application interface designer. I’ve done my fair bit in helping define a Jabber-based instant messenger, and I’ve been responsible for the interface design of version 3, version 4 and the now in development, version 5.

So here are some points I think are absolutely essential, if you’re about to design an application interface.

1. Be involved

Don’t remove yourself from the process of developing the application. Participate and voice you’re opinion, especially when it comes to how things will actually work in the end, because you’re going to be the one making the actual visual interaction bit.

You need to understand the application in depth but also to help define it from the beginning. Remember this: when left to their own devices, programmers came up with the “web-safe” 216 color palette and CSS – two of the most horribly conceived design tools ever. Shame they didn’t have a designer around to point a few things out.

2. Know what’s standard

Some people think it’s cool to re-invent the wheel.

It’s not.

Remember Kai’s power tools for Photoshop? Those were some evil interfaces: completely incomprehensible and ultimately, an obstacle to actually using the applications. If people are used to pushing a button to call an elevator, don’t give them a sensor pad they have to do the moonwalk on in order to achieve the same objective. Just… give them a button.

So, if you know what’s standard, you can get that out of the way and go solve whatever isn’t.

3. Keep it simple…

Try to keep the interface simple: people are not going to read the help files, the FAQ and much less, the f’ing manual, so get that idea off your head. “We’ll put that in the help section” is never a good solution.

As painful as it might be, if someone doesn’t understand how to use your windows after a couple of tries, then you have to go back to the drawing board.

You shouldn’t, however, over-simplify to the point where you omit functionality. If you have some stuff you think your average user isn’t going to touch but a power-user might like, leave it there, but make it smaller and out of the way: power-users – as the definition goes – will poke at everything anyway, so they’ll get it, and if it’s not big and shiny, your run-of-the-mill user won’t get drawn to it like moths to the moon.

4. …but keep it pretty

You want to make things nice and sleek, but if your application does what others do but looks like it was made by a monkey with Parkinson’s, then people are going to prefer the one that looks like Steve Jobs might have liked it.

Once things are in place and you think functionality and ease-of-use have been maximized: glaze it. Just add that extra coat of varnish that makes people’s eyes glint. Using reflections is in at the moment, as are projected shadows, translucency and a general glassy or plastic look. We can all thank Apple for that… or curse them, it’s up to each of us.

It’s a good idea not to ignore the trends though, because people are very conditioned to respond to familiarity and in today’s world, true originality is grossly over-rated.

5. Above all, keep it consistent

Whatever you do, if you took the initial effort not to re-invent the wheel… don’t re-invent your own wheel. Choose a style and go with it. Repeat your visual cues throughout the application, don’t change shapes or colours from one window to the next, define your language and use it throughout.

Keep your headers the same, your footers the same, your buttons in the same place in every window, your font use consistent, your colour use consistent and the same goes for icon use, types of separators and aggregators, frames and so on.

Having all these things defined will help you focus on the core design of each window, improving your chances of success. It’s not easy, but it can be a lot of fun.

In closing, these are simple tips and they are certainly not new, nor are they specific to a computer application interface design. They are actually things every designer should think about when going about the task of building any sort of communication model. But I think it’s never too much to remind myself even of the most basic or apparently obvious things.

After all, if nobody ever forgot about the basics, the world would be perfect, and we’d get bored.

Have fun.