Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interactive Criticism and the Cult of Clean Design

This discussion of minimalist posters got me thinking of some of the design problems I have been encountering lately. And that got me to thinking that I have been seeing a variation of this for years and years.

 Unlike much of the graphic arts scene, it seems that interactive design hasn't gotten over it's trend of simplicity and whitespace for their own sake. If anything it seems to get worse year after year. While I won't quite blame Apple – and everyone else who follows that design ethos of spartan minimalism in everything – this is the design I am talking about.

 But the problem isn't really that we're stuck in a design rut. We are, but it's much more that not everyone evaluates everything the same way, with the same depth. People use a cool new product (on their iPad), then come to work the next day and say we should make a product as clean and easy to use as this.

 But "clean" and "easy to use" are different things. In the same way that "look and feel" are two different phrases (hence the "and"). "Clean" rapidly becomes misinterpreted as "low-featured." "Easy to use" becomes misinterpreted as "easy for every single person in the world to use." "Simple" turns into "simplistic," and we cut features not to get to core principles, but because they are visible.

We cut features not with a knife, but with an axe. And rapidly, any feature is worthy of being assailed not on it's merits, but on it's immediate visual appeal in a wireframe, or comp. But it's a false argument. Anything, – anything – can be assailed as cluttered, complex, or any number of adjectives that are, really, meaningless. There is no way to argue against "you don't want to confuse the user..." on it's merits, because there is no internal logic to this argument; it has no merits, really.

I routinely want to challenge such arguments and bring us back to principles, or to the scientific underpinnings of the practice. "Hard for which users?" or "But this feature is required to meet objective 2…" or "But the research proved that 100% of the participants prefer…" So maybe we can win the argument by counter-attacking their premise, and getting to the core of the issue like this. At least on the face of it.

Because really, we're missing a key point by calling it a design issue. It's a communications issue, or maybe (as Alexandra Lange responded in the comments on that Design Obsever article), an issue of design criticism. I admit that I would not have made any of these connections without her article. As practitioners of IxD, UI and UX, we try to make decisions based on provable knowledge. You could even characterize it as a scientific approach to design.

But it's not always true. Opinions still abound in discussions amongst ourselves. About interpreting what actually happened in a test, or what situation we are really looking at, so what heuristic should be applied. If you were to watch a design (or art) critique session, you might think it's just a conversation, but really this is a fairly formal construct, with rules that make it work to everyone's advantage.

You cannot complain about a work without merit; "I don't like it" doesn't fly. You better have a good, reasoned argument as to what you don't like, in what manner you don't like it, and maybe even suggest a solution. It better address the intended audience, or the purpose of the object. Assuming use outside of this may be irrelevant.

 As the creator, you better accept all criticism, and I don't mean passively; you have to engage in the conversation, to make sure everyone understands each other, and so group discussions can help reach consensus on the best course of action. Note that I didn't say "solution." One individual still ends up cutting the wood, or painting the line, or placing the pixel. Iterative critique gets it closer to the intended goals. Mostly, you cannot perform design criticism alone, or as the only proper practitioner of it; everyone has to participate and follow the rules. 

 Interactive design doesn't have any of this. Sure, your studio might work fine. And I have absolutely been on teams – or led teams – that worked exactly like this and had terrific group design critiques (and terrific products came out the other end). But as a whole discipline we do not have a method of critique. We argue, cajole, express opinion, refer to previous solutions, and our favorite products. We make deals, and end up splitting the difference so we can stop arguing and get to the next point. We decry ornament (especially when we bow to the altar of Clean Design) and insist we evaluate based on interactivity and process.

All while we draw comps and complain about crowding objects, and demand white space be added or everything align to the grid. We carry out common practice, and build what is easy, instead of finding and defining what is truly, demonstrably best practice. We do not share, or tell anyone else about our design solutions. Maybe not even the guy in the next pod, but almost never to the design community as a whole. We design in isolation, take criticism as insults to our work, and believe there is design that cannot be improved upon. We perceive openness to opinion, fuzzy concepts or acceptance of change as weakness. We are simply confused (and maybe assume it's a trick or insult) when a designer offers to change to an alternative design when a good point is raised by others. And we cannot fathom why our clients do not respect interactive design and user experience as evidence-based, consistently-applied, professional fields, and express sorrow every time they insist we change something based on whim.

 We need an ethos of design criticism. Not a process. The existing ones for fine art and design work fine. And we must not stop disagreeing with each other. We must not stifle creativity, or reduce iteration, or work more in isolation from fear or as a res Of course you know that arguing with the client never really works. I said that up above because that's what I want to do, but another approach is needed.

 So, if you agree, what next? Well, it's simple. Do this. Tomorrow. Okay, it's the end of the week. So, Monday. The next time you bring the team together, lay out the ground rules and tell everyone this is how we're going to talk to each other. In several ways – but especially in becoming a seasoned practitioner of art and design criticism – going to art school was maybe the best education I could have gotten. I've been thinking for a long time we need to teach not just what you should know, but how to do it and how to do it with a team. Not every field of study or school does this. You can make sure to teach your junior designers the skills they need, and not just assume they will pick it up on the way. And you can try to get the right feedback from everyone.

When you walk to someone's desk, and they give feedback, ask them to justify it, very precisely. Nicely, but get to the heart of it. Anyone can answer these questions if pushed to it. Not naturally, but they can. Even your clients. If you are told "why not more like how Amazon does it?" then pull up that part of Amazon, and ask in what manner this solves the need. Ask how this meets the goals of the product, ask questions you know that there are answers to, or which they will enjoy answering. As much as it's been talked about, there is no certifying organization for IxD.

As much as some people get to write books (now me!) and get followed by thousands of people every day, there is no one guru who can change the whole field. We all do it, every day, as we work with each other and improve interactive products. If you like this idea, do it. If you have a better one, do that. But if anything ever bothers you about how our field works, talk about it, find a solution, and put it into practice. This is how we improve ourselves, and our little part of the world.

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