Help Me Think

Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” book made quite a dent in UI design. It’s now considered a mandatory read. While it surely is, let us not forget simpler is not always better. Here is my view on what UI designers should aim for when practicing their art.


Complexity.

With over 20 years of widespread availability, web design as an industry is both young — relatively to other industries — and old — if you consider the frenetic pace of “mutations” it undertook. In fact, every time you feel it reached a “plateau” is the surest sign it is about to reinvent itself in some way or another… Rapid technological advances, the internet’s rapid market penetration, the bandwidth capacity improvements, all these ended up by filling our agenda with I should learn this… and I should experiment that. Browser wars, Netscape vs Internet Explorer (there was a time we actually worshipped IE6!), Table vs. non-table design, the legendary web designer Yugo Nakamura, the Northern light and altavista search engines, astalavista.box.sk (for crackxz), napster and then kazaa, Hotline pre peer-to-peer dark network…

Back in the days, many among us jumped into web building — let’s not call that design — with actually not much — if at all — design education. This is not necessarily a problem as long as you are able to teach yourself and/or have designers around you who feel like giving you a few advises–because it hurts them to see your work (my life’s story).

Plus, we had an excuse at sucking at design (well, I had): there was a lot to learn for the young web designer in terms of keeping up with the technology whilst in the same time trying to make a living out of all this learning. Managing clients, understanding that you actually have to educate them as much as you have to educate yourself, etc. All these are to be learned too, the old, hard, way. Back in the days, design was about makeup in my mind, an afterthought. It was hard enough to make it work at all.

No wonder web people get so hooked up in our work: it demands such commitment. You cannot become a good web designer if you just give it one hour of your time a day. Make it 10, sometimes 15 hours. Every day.

Don’t Make Me Think.

Design-wise, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think came at a time when websites narratives were focusing too much on the business owner and not enough on the end-user. Same went for interfaces : built from the perspective of the engineer, with not much care for the user’s actual needs and thinking logics. The implemented path-to-completion, while “logical” to the engineer, often lead to confusing, unnecessary hard UX. Fascinated by “how” the user was to perform, we didn’t give much thought as to the “why”.

Steve Krug’s book made an entire industry realize that whatever interface we produced has to meet a minimum level of usability and be much more user-centric if we want these conversion rate and user engagement to grow.

Around the same time the Ajax methodology became popular, the so-called Web 2.0 — the social web took over and “readers” started to become “users” of the internet. This made Krug’s point even more important.

Yet I honestly feel we, designers, are making a mistake reciting “don’t make me think” as a mantra. It has led us to repeat the same design patterns over and over, often at the expense of questioning their relevancy. Powered by “get things done” frameworks, cheap templates, the web is becoming boring.

The Founding Fathers’ vision.

Let us take some distance, see the big picture, and reflect on what was the original vision that drove the design of the internet by its founding fathers.

It is debatable, but I consider Vannevar Bush to be one of the most brilliant ones, for his description of the Memex (Memory Expender) in a famous article published in the Atlantic in 1945, entitled “As We May Think”.

This paper describes in my view the utopia behind the whole research that lead to the creation of the Internet. And guess what: it was not so much about “conversion rate”, “SEO” or flat design. It was about a technology that would “augment the human intellect”.

Isn’t the purpose of design to…

Let us ask ourselves: are we, designers, doing everything we can so that these user experiences we offer online augment the human intellect? Do we actually have such power? Do we want them?

Let my ego say “yes, I do”. (It’s okay, it’s the ego talking, everyone know he’s wrong. Just don’t tell him.)

…help me think?

The key argument is that cognitive tasks should be turned into design principles.

– Edward Tufte

Whilst just a few centuries ago (until Gutenberg’s printing press) information was hardly accessible to the common folk, the modern man’s condition is quite the opposite. Information is preying on us. It feels to me like there is a war waging as to whom is going to get my attention.

Our family, coworkers, clients, partners, teachers… We all fight for each other’s attention as part of our natural growth. Add to these the media and the whole World Wide Web.

Does that augment our intellect? Sometimes, I guess. But more often than not, we are bombarded with so many “distractions” in the form of notifications, call-to-actions, mass messages that it is hard to make sense of it all — it’s not that we don’t care — the human hardware hasn’t changed — it’s that we cannot care.

For good or evil, we as designers need to understand this critical situation of the modern man, and make the flow of data easily processable to our fellow humans.

Here are, IMO, two important concepts to achieve that: bandwidth and narrative.

Reduce, for the sake of mental bandwidth

Reductionism is about decoration vs. essence. It cares about the user’s “attention span”, the bandwidth of the mind if you like. Remove the accessories, keep the core, the meaningful.

Reductionism also implies caring for the hardware bandwidth, which is best measured in web page loading speed. Optimise for speed of the initial pageload, speed of visual processing (think trice about animations). Waiting means time where the user can get distracted.

Storytelling

Usability is important, for sure, but… is it enough to our users? Is this all? Is web design actually only about making usable things?

Installing a new application used to be so hard. A few years ago, you had to follow a wizard, possibly update drivers. Now, you just tap once, or twice.

So no, ultimately, I think not. Web design is first and foremost: design. De.sign. Signification, meaning, message. The experience of a message factored into a story about me (the user). Storytelling is therefore about the “why”. The user should “get” what this experience is about, and its benefits to him. Usability is the easiest part (once you know how, it’s mainly technical knowledge).

Closing comment

Well, this rant has been too long already, so let me wrap it up.

Web design is the bastard practice of visual design meeting interaction design in cyberspace. It is experienced as stories in which the user is the hero, or at least a protagonist. Care for his needs (purpose) and constraints (bandwidth).

In this manner might we align our web building to the purpose for which it was envisioned: enhance the human intellect.

Ultimately, the internet is the vision of a the largest thinking space the Universe has ever seen, made up of each of our seven billion single minds interacting together. Let us work towards that.

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