More Isn’t Better

The high tech world we live in generates some really high tech expectations.

Whether it’s needed or not, we see countless “features” and “upgrades” being thrown at us, causing for the most part more confusion than anything else. If there is a lesson the humongous sales of iPads hasn’t taught our beloved decision makers, it’s that sometimes simpler is better than more.

Most of the time, a subtle nudge works better than a huge wink, and thankfully, some designers took the hint.

But it seems that flashy now means modern in some people’s minds. Case in point: a very good friend of mine was put in charge of creating from scratch a website for his company. The company deals in service for professionals (read “something most of you, and myself, will never need”). Their business is all mouth-to-ear anyway, so the website isn’t really needed, it’s mostly so that people could look them up if needed.

He worked with some friends of his, very good at designing websites in their own right, and came up with something Apple-y. Clear and concise, no-nonsense, but clearly not really funny either.

This idea got rejected immediately. “Where are all the animations?” and “can we add a little more bang to it, to show that, you know, we’re modern and all?” seemed to be the major reason for rejection.

Now, picture this: you are tasked by your company to find a suitable service provider. You ask a few colleagues and/or friends from the business, you look companies up, and you come up with two possible candidates.

You go on one’s website, it’s clean but contains little except for a list of current customers, and contact information, maybe with a little side of demo/pr.

On the other’s website, you see animations everywhere, it takes a good couple of minutes for everything to settle down, and maybe take you to the place you were looking for: contact and price information.

In all honestly, which is most likely to annoy?

This is something that, as a developer who knows I suck at design, I have to face on a regular basis. For a project, I would get only screens, and not a word about navigation. A beta I would offer would get criticized at length because “the cool flipover double axel animation thingie is not in, yet”. I would have detailed sketches as to wooshing sound effects and glow-in-the-dark animations, but when I ask “ok, but once you are on that screen, you’re stuck, and have no way to go back, right?”, I would get looked at as if I had rabies.

Every once in a while, I have the chance of working with designers who actually think all of this through carefully. And man, does it feel great to have someone who can sometimes say “you know what, I honestly didn’t think that case would present itself, but now that I see it, I’ll think about how to deal with it”, and do so. And as a user, I even agree with the final decision. Talk about sweet. That was the case on that huge Java project I was working on, and given the scope of the project (think small OS), it was a very welcome change in the type of people I sometimes have to deal with.

In my mind, usability should come first, graphics second. This is why for a long time, Linux, while vastly superior in many ways on the technical level to its competitors, could not gain a foothold in the desktop business: unusable by my granny. That’s why some really really cool projects (from a geek perspective) such as automated households don’t really appeal to most people: they know how to use a dial and a button, and fidgeting with an LCD display and a keyboard seems over-complex. Even if in the end, they won’t have to touch the thing ever again.

If you are thinking of a new and wonderful project, think about 3 major factors before handing the making to somebody:
– the user needs to find what he/she is looking for in less than 20s, or at least understand how to get there in that time frame. (depth)
– do at least a rough storyboard of the navigation. Where do you start? Where can you go from there? Should you be able to go back, or forward only? Repeat. (width)
– “animations” is cool. But only if it highlights a feature you want to bring forward, draws the attention towards it, never away from it.

Now, I’m only a developer. I have no track record in design or graphics. But after a decade of writing code, I start to get a sense of what the user wants. And if a developer can, you can too.


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