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Weblog Entry

Using It

June 23, 2003

There should be a law. Well maybe not so much a law as a stipulation of employment. This law or stipulation should force designers to work with the systems, product, or sites that they build.

I’ve been doing some adjusting on this site recently, and the more I start using it myself (to refer back to old posts, to comment on fresh posts, and so forth) the more I see ways where things could be done better.

The comment sections have seen the most change recently. I’ve bumped up the font size in the comment boxes, and increased the height by a few lines. Why? Beause they were too hard to use for longer comments. I added a numbering system to the individual comments. Why? Because I was noticing it was too hard to scroll the list and keep track of where I was after so a few pages of comments.

(And I should digress here — there have been some excellent threads recently. I’m very impressed with the thoughtfulness I’m seeing, and I’m still thrilled every time I get another reply.)

My archives are pretty klunky right now. I spent some time a few months ago putting together the current calendar system, which is fine I suppose, but what I really need is a way to browse by subject. Dates aren’t nearly as important as what the post was about. This I’ve discovered only by having to go back to find a reference, and actually being forced to use the system I’ve built.

I’ve been working on a few site managers and planning systems lately where interface and usability are crucial to the process. Unfortunately, the budget and time constraints are such that usability is planned in advance, but once the system is built there is no further refinement. This is a problem. The best possible usability feedback comes not from the designer looking at a database and figuring out how the tables and forms interact, but from the users who spend significant amounts of time interacting with the system and actually trying to get things done with it.


Reader Comments

Justin says:
June 23, 01h

but i’ve worked where i was given this huge bloated Photoshop “masterpiece” and told to create a webpage around it…. oh, and here’s 4 paragraphs of text we need on there, too.

I think this happens a lot when you are dealing with someone (either the client or someone else in the idea formulation chain) who only has experience with print design. I still find myself falling prey to page-bloat when I get trapped in a print design mode. A sympathetic reeducation on what the web is about and how more accessible pages will benefit the customer would probably help. And if they convince even one other person in their network of associates, it’s worth the time.

There are two types: the fine-arts-schooled or self-taught that really haven’t studied design in the first place, and the high-end experience designers that create things of beauty who shouldn’t be designing things people are expected to use.

Furthermore, when design for the web is taught, it is usually as a simple addendum to print design. Not to mention the fact that most schools, from what I have seen and heard, still teach table soup as the main method of coding, with a continuing strong emphasis on Flash. At some point there is going to have to be a shift in the paradigm of the educators (and not just the ones in schools) if the transition to proper markup is going to float. Of course this site and others like it go a long way towards furthering that goal. The CSS Zen Garden has to be the single best way to convince a designer of the power of style sheets. How do we translate that into something convincing for a school administrator, when the old way certainly seems “good enough” ?

Lea says:
June 23, 01h

Using ‘the art comes first’ as an excuse against usability is almost always to compensate for lack of talent.

Amen, sir. Amen to that. : )

Dave S. says:
June 23, 01h

Justin, you’ll be happy to note that I’ve seen a lot of educational interest in the Zen Garden. It’s great when a whole pool of sequential class C addresses (200.50.50.10 - 200.50.50.25 for example) hits it at roughly the same time. People are using it as an instructional tool. That’s great news, and you wouldn’t believe what it does to my ego!

i just wonder if this is more prevalent, or just local to a few companies?

More prevalent than you’d like to think. A lot of people do a lot of things wrong. I’m not blameless, I make mistakes too. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your specialty and ignore those outside of it. That’s what I see as a huge problem amongst those that work on the web - everyone wears blinders that allow them to see in one direction at a time.

Valette says:
June 23, 01h

The numbers on the comments are sexy.
That’s all.

5
Mr. Brownstone says:
June 23, 02h

Numbers on the comm…? Oh, I see. :) They fade into the background a bit. How about make the font just a tad darker?

Mark says:
June 23, 02h

Yes, the numbers on the comments are incredibly sexy. Must reverse-engineer your CSS.

Dave S. says:
June 23, 03h

I’m actually quite pleased they fade so much — they are completely un-important except for reference’s sake. I may make them a biiit darker, but the point is that they’re there if you need ‘em, they fade into the background when you don’t.

Just in case anyone’s wondering — I actually had to get messy with a bit of ASP to generate them… I hoped I might be able to get away with list items (like Mark) but it wasn’t to be. I might be convinced to post a how-to here, if necessary.

Arikawa says:
June 23, 08h

At some point, adding some search functionality might be necessary for those ( including yourself ( ! ) ) who are looking for a particular subject.

Being a browser myself (as in ‘one who browses’, not a software application), I kind of like getting lost in a ton of information. I’ll often find myself looking for one thing and discovering something else of interest… and following it 10 links away from original starting point.

One of the great things of the web for me.

What about some sort of Dewey decimal system? : )

Dave S. says:
June 23, 08h

Good point. Somewhere between 2.21 and 2.64, Ben added search functionality to MT itself. I’ll have to look at integrating that somehow.

In the meantime, of course, there’s always Google.

Eric says:
June 23, 10h

Funny, I was formulating a theory on the train this morning about how good developers with good usability instincts will always create a better experience than even the best “usability expert” could do, mainly because we “use” it. I’ve mentally queued it for my forthcoming site…

forgetfoo says:
June 23, 10h

i dunno, i work with developers and seem to be constantly amazed by how “un-usabe” a feature is that they’ve added or coded in…. or how counter-intuitive it is, or how a link or item gets put in the strangest places where one needs to really hunt around and start clicking everywhere in order to do something trivial. then again, i know some gfx/designers that are just all about a graphic or flash animation, and honestly dont care about if it makes any sense in the scope of the project in question.

…but it’s funny how often you write something (blog, for example) and find yourself complaining like an “end user” about yer own work… lol

Dave S. says:
June 23, 10h

i know some gfx/designers that are just all about a graphic or flash animation, and honestly dont care about if it makes any sense in the scope of the project in question

I abhor that mindset. There are two types: the fine-arts-schooled or self-taught that really haven’t studied design in the first place, and the high-end experience designers that create things of beauty who shouldn’t be designing things people are expected to use.

Using ‘the art comes first’ as an excuse against usability is almost always to compensate for lack of talent.

There, I’ve said it.

forgetfoo says:
June 23, 12h

i’d have to agree with ya, man…. and i like art! but i’ve worked where i was given this huge bloated Photoshop “masterpiece” and told to create a webpage around it…. oh, and here’s 4 paragraphs of text we need on there, too.

*ugh* sorry, i realize this is heard quite often - but it is annoying. on the flipside, there’s developers/programmers that really have no sense of the overall purpose behind the web-application (which i find myself stressing all the time)…. personally, i find myself in-between these two “camps” and it sucks. and of course the boss/management has no effin clue.

i just wonder if this is more prevalent, or just local to a few companies?

Mike says:
June 24, 04h

Great work Dave, you’ve made a great site even better.

Going back there are always things to ‘make better’. I haven’t replied to your e-mail yet ‘cause we launched our new home site over the weekend…

I’m still updating a few pages, but came to your site after realizing that a small chunk of CSS I’d been using for positioning purposes became irrelevant after making some changes, and I needed a breather!…

So my ‘two day old’ design already fell victim to ‘go-back-and-clean-up’.
And it wasn’t the typical rookie mistake, more an oversite of redundant CSS that should have been cleaned up… (I guess that *is* a rookie mistake, no? ;-] )

forgetfoo says:
June 24, 05h

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your specialty and ignore those outside of it.

amen to that! i know i fall into that category quite a bit and to be honest, am still try’n to come to grips with the whole “designing with standards” thing i’ve been reading up on alot lately…. but after being spoiled rotten with working on Intranets for 5 years in IE enviroments….. well, old habits die hard sometimes ;)

btw, the comment count/listing is pretty spiffy… thought they were images at first. lol

16
Leonya says:
June 24, 07h

I have never met developers concerned with usability aspects. If they do create UIs, they are simply a reflection of the objects in the DB and the methods applicable to those objects. Those UIs contain no idea about how the system is going to be used. And when you ask those developers how to use the system, they simply can’t answer this question. They do know how the system works, but have no clue on using it. Don’t even try asking questions about “usage scenarios” or stuff like that :-)

June 24, 07h

Leonya, you are confusing developers with programmers. What you describe is the expected result of a programmer. A programmer sees everything (including the UI) as the end result of the program. The developer sees the program as the end result of everything else. Neither is better or worse in general, and you’re best off if you have both on your project.

Also to clarify my initial point, I was talking about “good developers with good usability instincts”, which I don’t think is the norm (yet). Of course, my viewpoint could be tainted by the fact that in my years of dealing with “usability experts” and reading the work of those I haven’t worked with, I honestly can’t recall anything valuable ever being said that wouldn’t be common sense to the aformentioned developer. I can, however, recall many many times where stupid and/or wrong things were said.

“Don’t worry, most users don’t know how to change the font size anyways”

“People don’t like to type”

“I don’t think color blind people represent a significant demographic”

I realize these are accessibility issues as well as usability (if for some reason you feel the need to draw a strong distinction), but the list goes on and on.

In short, Usability Engineering is simply the application of the “experts” personal biases and those biases they’ve read from other “experts”. I leave you with an approximate transcript of an actual conversation:

UI: “Navigation lists should never be more than 5 items long”
Me: “Why?”
UI: “It’s a usability thing”
Me: “OK, seems pretty general, where does this ‘thing’ come from, a study?”
UI: “Yeah, probably, let’s not waste time debating this”
Me: “Fine with me”
UI: “So take these two items out”
Me: “Nope”
UI: “Why?”
Me: “I thought you didn’t want to waste time debating this?”

The site launched with about 8 items.

July 23, 12h

Thank you, Jakob Neilsen. :)

Just teasing, of course. Great read!

Jeff