UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 574 November 2, 2010

Designing Objectively

It’s a common misconception that art and design are one and the same. But although design can be artful, the process behind it is quite different.

Artists engage in the manipulation of a particular medium to produce an aesthetic and personal response. Art is valued for its originality and ability to express an idea. Some people get it, some don’t, and that’s okay. Design, on the other hand, must solve a specific problem relative to a particular user or task, and is evaluated simply by how effective it is at solving that problem. If it doesn’t work, then it failed—period.

Everything in nature is the way it is by design; evolution has no aesthetic or personal opinion. Like art, some people find bugs to be quite beautiful while others cringe at the sight of them. But like them or not, their design is the way it is because of their environment and the obstacles they face trying to survive. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you think; it has to work, or they die.

Design is inherently an objective process, yet when it comes to designing for people, we tend to cloud this truth. As emotional beings, our judgment is often greatly affected by how we feel, and how we feel is often unpredictable, uncertain, and complicated. Therefore, we can’t design for emotion; everyone experiences it differently. But we can design for the fundamental psychological underpinnings and biological traits that influence perception. When we do that, we find design to be much simpler. All we must do is define a core concept—a problem to solve—and make logical, subsequent decisions off it, maintaining focus and keeping in mind the psychology of how we learn and remember things.

How We Learn

Instinctually, we construct myriad mental models of concepts in the world, creating expectations of how objects work, which we learn more over time through our experiences. We’re naturally inclined to believe, for example, that round things are softer than square things, that blue is colder than orange, and that simpler things and, in general, more approachable.

Consider a person who’s never seen a mobile phone before presented with both an iPhone and a Blackberry. Then consider the range of first moves they can make with each product. By probability alone, there’s a higher chance that the person turns the iPhone on faster than the Blackberry. With less buttons and less clutter, the iPhone is much easier to approach and engage with, and that is its first, and perhaps most important, step to success.

In a battle of popular micro-blogging sites, Tumblr and Posterous take very different approaches to their landing pages. Posterous, a Silicon Valley tech company, showcases how it works and what people say about it. On the other hand, Tumblr, a New York design company, simply presents users with a big signup form and one line of text: “The easiest way to blog.” By focusing users’ attention and presenting them with few options, the product is far more approachable. As such, despite Posterous’s powerful functionality, Tumblr has won out in the size of its user base.

Users’ entire experience with a new product is a continual series of new experiences, making the approachability of those experiences key as they learn new facets and features of the product. But there’s a second, more powerful step to engagement: familiarity.

Recognition is among the most powerful forms of memory recall, so it’s no wonder that familiarity is a strong factor in good design. Because we carry with us all kinds of assumptions and schemas from our innate biology and prior experiences, we don’t approach products as a blank slate. The more a product can tap into users’ existing expectations, the easier it will be for them to learn its new features. Many basic calculator software applications, for example, mimic the look of a real calculator, even though a virtual calculator probably makes more sense as a simple textbox that parses expressions.

A product with a familiar interface gives users a tremendous leg up in the learning process, and meeting their expectations builds a valuable trusting relationship that greatly enhances the product’s quality and credibility.

How We Remember

This continual cycle of approachability and recognizability can be described as learnability—that is, how easy a product is to learn. Because this is a crucial component of a product’s success, more complex products will often put new users through a tutorial-like workflow to get them acquainted with the various features and facets. But this approach suggests that the product has an inherently flawed architecture. If the basic blueprint is not intuitive such that users have to be guided through it, the learning process becomes less internalized and less memorable; they are learning to rely on what you tell them, not what they experience.

Workflows designed with a focus on initial learnability can do more serious damage to a product’s usability in the long run. One of the most challenging aspects to selling a design to stakeholders is convincing them that its usability—the speed and efficiency of task completion—is more important than the initial gut reaction, which is all you get from a meeting. Stakeholders often like to see certain elements front and center from the beginning, never mind that those elements may become trivial—or worse, distracting —in the rest of the workflow. If a product doesn’t have a logical architecture from the start, users will lose their way.

In 2007, Microsoft revamped its suite of Office products with “The Ribbon,” a new interface that organizes related commands into a set of tabs. Years of research and iteration lead to this design, which was intended to optimize the user workflow. In PowerPoint (a product on which I briefly worked), research showed that the typical user workflow consisted primarily of creating a new slide, adding text, formatting that text, adding shapes, and formatting those shapes. As a result, the “Home” tab in The Ribbon includes all these apparently related actions together, with other tabs having names and action sets based on other workflows: “Design,” “Slideshow,” “Insert,” “Review,” and a contextual tab depending on what tool the user has selected.

Powerpoint vs. Keynote
The difference between the PowerPoint and Keynote interfaces.

This structure starkly contrasts the way Apple designed Keynote, another slideshow/presentation application. While its interface also uses a tabbed approach, the tabs are divided by the various types of objects that can be included in presentations: slides, text, shapes, charts, tables, etc., each with its own set of related actions. Because of this more objective and logical grouping (as well as many of Keynote’s other features that obey principles of approachability and recognizability), the product is quite successful and easy to use.

Objective design doesn’t cater to a specific workflow. Rather, it simply provides a logical structure that plays into our innate psychology. This structure is also behind good writing, movies, music, and other widely successful products and experiences. People are inclined to seek out order and hierarchy as a way to categorize, identify, and define the objects and experiences they encounter and don’t respond well to deviations from this natural process.

If someone challenges a product’s design with aesthetically or emotionally based suggestions and changes, they must be reminded that design decisions are based in logical reasoning. It’s this highly disciplined, unemotional, and perceptive ability to break down gray areas into small, inarguable black-and-white building blocks that allow for the most effective communication and, more importantly, designs that just work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Eric Fisher is a product designer and social design evangelist at Facebook. He writes about the psychology of design at FishoftheBay.com and runs the wordplay site OneUpMe.com on the side. Follow Eric on Twitter at @fishofthebay.

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Comments

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I'm not be clear on how you're using the term objective. To be objective we must remove ourselves from the experience to see things as they are without bias. We must remove our influences from the past and present, our desires for the future, our likes and dislikes. Which is impossible. We can't use consumers either because they are not objective also.

Design is not an objective process. Design starts with a concept, an hypothesis, a vision - this is very necessary and subjective thing. We use our experience and skills then we spend time proving or disproving our approach with analysis, ideation, prototypes, testing and construction. All heavily influenced by what the design team wants to accomplish.

In regards to art and design. I think the highest honor to design is when it can be seen as artful. Art being the way it can connect to our human nature to our collective spirit. And "art" can fail too.

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Thought-provoking article, thank you.

Since you've contended that it's the objective logicality of the arrangement and not the look that improves the functionality here, to truly compare these, wouldn't you need to do a ribbon-style layout of the Keynote groupings, and a keynote style layout of the power point groupings?

I'd be interested to know how you decided that the Keynote groupings were more logical than the Power point ones, because I struggle to see a strong logical priority of what kind of object you're working with over what kind of process you're doing with it. For instance, I and other designers of my acquaintance will often get the content mostly ready and then go right through and format, arrange and lay it out. This workflow would seem to favour the ribbon layout.

Yet the briefest glance makes Keynote look miles better.

But in a brief glance i am evaluating how approachable it is. Naturally, this is only one aspect of design, particularly of ux design.

I'd have to say, too, that these days I would have thought that the use of the term 'objective' as opposed to 'emotional' invites a little more framing than you've given. It's not the clean unproblematic concept that your unvarnished treatment of it seems to imply.

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While objectivity has it's place, experiences are felt. What your saying goes back to the 80's. Efficiency efficiency!
The field is way beyond that approach. Subjectivity, culture, affect. These play a big role in design.
What good is usability if nobody feels those subjective emotions of pleasure and comfort when using it?
If we had a perfect understanding of the mind (and if everyone's minds were the same) then we could be design with objectivity. But we don't live in that type of world.

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"Design is inherently an objective process" - I disagree. There is nothing inherently objective about design. On the same note, mental models are a theory, not objective truths in the same way that, say, a stone is objectively real. Mental models are that, models - models are always wrong - some are useful!

What "objective" does in this context is more like "look ma, I can be objective"...

I do not believe that the categories of subjective or objective are of relevance to design. Even more cloudy when the talk falls on "logical" decisions in design - what kind of logic? Inductive, deductive, abductive...? Design is interpretation of situations, contexts, people. Interpretations are not objective, neither are they subjective.

In much research, tallying might come across as more "objective" (for some), while (messy) qualitative research seems objective. People tend to forget that the numbers coming from quantiative research are based on a long network of assumptions, and do not in any way stand in for reality.

A very odd article...highly problematic assumptions being made here!

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@Beatrix

"Everything is subjective."

I'd say you're both right and wrong when referring to design. Unfortunately design can be very subjective, but this is a product of it being visual and therefore the uninitiated having the ability to comment on something they actually know little about.

Would you, for example, say that circuit-board design is subjective? Or aerofoil design? The design of tubing that caries fuel around a power-station? I'd argue that these things have a best and worst design scenario given their parameters. The same goes for UX design. Therefore I agree with the writer (and infact argue this point often), that design shouldn't be treated like you'd treat a kitchen redecoration, but more how you'd re-plan a motorway.

@Liou

"... This also holds true for functionality: you're never sure if people are really going to use it in the way you intended. That's why research and evaluation is so important."

Spot on.

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Interesting, controversial article. I guess the best thing you can go for is intersubjectivity: design something as much informed as possible through research, and evaluate it.

Cognitive psychology can definitely inform designers. I don't think the comparison between PowerPoint and Keynote proves the point however. Analysing the workflow and related tasks is always important. But it can inform designs in many ways. You can use it 1 on 1, by showing tasks as options. Maybe this is not the best option in case of creating slides, although no clear usage or satisfaction data is presented. So the evaluation is definitely subjective, makes me wonder about the design!

Furthermore, as Don Norman points out, emotional aspect can be functional. You can't design them directly, as you mention in this article, but you can design for them. This also holds true for functionality: you're never sure if people are really going to use it in the way you intended. That's why research and evaluation is so important.

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The problem Microsoft products have is is that their products have way too many features. the problem the business has is it feels it needs to add more and more in order to sell more and more.

Brilliant article

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Interesting article. Objectivity in design isn't really possible, however. Everything is subjective. The article also doesn't tell me how to do a design. But I now know why I hate the stupid ribbons so much.