Archive for May 12th, 2004

Web designers should stop seeing the devil in usability

Wednesday, May 12th, 2004

In Web Designers On A Fence Keith Robinson writes about the problems faced by web designers.

Actually I’d extend most of what he says to designers in general, in the post-Mac age. My first ever published article appeared in an early issue of the UK’s MacFormat magazine and was a bit of a rant rattled off and faxed in the heat of the moment after a particularly galling encounter with a director of the company I worked for.

He came to see me with a “quick” design job that actually would have taken several hours, but which I couldn’t fit into my schedule. He looked at me blankly – “can’t you just feed it in to your machine?” he said. It was typical of the way that people viewed design, and still do I think. You still see jobs advertised for “Mac operators”, for example. Now if that’s a new version of “paste up artist” fine, but in fact it usually isn’t. Most often those people want a designer, but they think they need a “mac operator”. There’s a whole new post brewing on this subject but I’m digressing (again).

One thing Keith says that I take issue with is his comment that “on one side we�ve got design on the other usability.”

Maybe I misunderstand him but I don’t believe there has to be this tension between design and usability. But it is certainly a common misperception in parts of the web design community.

It’s understandable if you look at the web site of the guru of usability, Jakob Neilsen ( He often comes across as “anti-design” and his site, though it may be “useable” is hardly pleasurable to use. Designers have a lot to offer the world of usability but this phoney war is a waste of time and effort.

But I’m not sure finding a solution to a problem is a “trade off” or a “compromise” as though design has to suffer if you favour usability or usability has to suffer if you favour design.

Design has to work, full stop. If aesthetics get in the way of a message or a use, it’s bad design. Take the humble chair, for instance: I’ve sat on a few chairs that look great but after a few minutes are really uncomfortable. That’s bad design. It’s the same with anything. Design is a language, and you have to choose the right language to get the message across. If I wrote this post in French, it might say exactly the same thing but you’d only understand it if you spoke French. What if I wrote it in English but injected native Yorkshire dialect and slang? Or filled it with technical jargon? Or pretentious pseudo-intellectualisms? It would still be “English”, but it would be difficult to understand – to use. When I speak or write I unconsciously choose my words carefully so that my meaning is understood, so that my words are “usable”. There’s no trade-off, no compromise. A good (or in my case merely okay) writer can do that. I’m not sure why designers see themselves differently from writers, moaning about compromise and sacrifice all the time when, hey, that’s the job! It’s what designers do.

Design isn’t art, where being vague and thought-provoking is okay. I know that’s a controversial view so I’ll probably explain what I mean a bit more in a later post.

One of my graduating students recently wrote a dissertation on accessible design (accessibility, usability – I don’t differentiate). His project looked at how graphic designers can ensure their work is readable by people with dyslexia. He found some designers with bizarre attitudes – people saying things like it’s okay to discriminate against people with dyslexia as it’s the design that’s important. Oh really? So dyslexics shouldn’t moan if they can’t read road signs, advertisements or television listings?

The good thing is, all you have to do with idiots like that is show them one example of a designer who manages to produce readable text that looks good and you’ve proved your point. A sweeping generalisation can easily become received wisdom if it isn’t squashed by one specific example. Which is why I like to point “usability v design” people to the growing number of web sites that prove you don’t have to compromise one or the other.