Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's time for a movement!

Being a designer who uses verbal language, I, and many of my colleagues, pay attention to Language Log, a blog by various language academics and other professionals in the field. James pointed out this post, which came out the same day as my previous post here.

Coincidence? Yeeesss, but for all the right reasons. This is bad, people. We have to fix things before more people get more hurt and more stressed.

Persistent bad design is immoral.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Design Is Immoral

Persistent bad design is immoral.

(For those of you into relativism, I encourage a contemplative tour of This is Broken in regards to design.)

Those companies and people who produce designs that continually cause difficulty, stress, frustration, tension, anger, delay, waste (esp. time), confusion, harm, etc. and do nothing about it when faced with its effects are committing absolute crimes against their fellow people.

Persistent bad design is immoral. It is life-sucking.

My first exhibit is personal. Summer '08 I "upgraded" from a 3 year old Treo 600 to a Verizon XV6800, i.e. an HTC running Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.0. I did this vaguely aware of the bad rep WM had, but I figured it was no worse than the desktop/laptop OS. I now know the depth of my ignorance. Suffice to say that the review I linked to feels effusively, and two-headed calf wrongly, positive.

Some of you might ask, "why give up the Treo?" or "Why not an iPhone, design phreak?" Well, the Treo was outdated, the camera sucked, etc. and I am a fairly happy and committed Verizon family plan customer. And I wanted a touchscreen, so a CrackBerry wouldn't work. So, after much cajoling from a colleague, I took the plunge. I'm still gasping for air.

How has this $400 device plagued me? Let me post the ways:
1 frequent lock-ups, often requiring battery removal
2 vibration starts and won't stop until a reboot
3 screen update latency often leading to repeated numbers during dialing
4 constant task interruption telling me it has sent a text (why do I even need to be notified of that? I am only interested in failure. I assume success.)
5 inability (until recently) to modify basic system functions of notification and sounds
6 The voice activation button is exactly where a thumb goes for regular holding of the phone
7 The volume won't go above moderately loud and so fades badly in noisy environments
8 MS ActiveSync has no setting for "don't sync until I tell you to"
9 When charging, there was no way to tell how charged it was
10 The camera, which takes decent pics, requires psychic or omniscient powers to use it. The buttons are baffling and there is no help on the device

Now, those aren't my top ten, because what I can't even write coherently and succinctly is how amazingly bad it is at handling phone calls when something else happens, like an incoming text. Or how confusing it can be to use the call history. Or how many steps are required to modify a contact. In fact, the only thing I can really say is easy is to move files onto and off the device from my laptop. And while that is handy, it is not a daily/hourly vital task like some of these others.

Which leads me to the highlight of the story. WM 6.1 was released in the fall and I heard promise of "major" improvements. I'm thinking I don't want improvements, I want do-overs. So I put it off until yesterday. And imagine my glee when I realize that there are TWO updates now. Since updates WIPE the phone, it's as if Suckrosoft figured they'd repay all those who complained the first time around.

So here's what happened. At the end of the day, I download the update files and transfer them to the phone. Then I open the readme docs, which, I find out, are helpful screenshots of the install program I am about to start. But onward. I begin. The dire warnings come that I am erasing ALL data on the device (Thanks, I know). Thirty minutes later, it finishes. Let me stop here for a moment to say that I am a "I'll figure it out"-geek, meaning that I can get through, but I'm not hacking core software, and I can easily imagine that a non-technical person might never have gotten through this alone. But all appears okay. I even download and install a couple of decent UI customizers to make me feel better on the surface.

I feel good about this and go to bed.

I awake this morning to hear my phone ring. For half a second. I get up and go to it. It rings again, barely long enough to see that it's my friend Chuck. No way to answer. Then one more time. He and I are supposed to talk later in the morning, but I need coffee first. I make it, then call. Or, rather, try to call. "We're sorry, but Verizon Wireless does not recognize your phone as an authorized device". Hmm. Upgrade? Erase all data? Crap.

So I call the activation number, which I happen to have memorized for reasons you can guess. "Programming successful!" Phew. Calling Chuck. "We're sorry, but Verizon Wireless does not recognize your phone as an authorized device". AAAHHHHHAHHAAAHHAHAHHHHH!!!!!!

All that work for FAIL?!?! Calm down. 1..2..3... They mention a number. I call it. The "Account Authorization" department will help me as soon as a representative is available. One comes on. I give my number. She finds my account. She fixes the issue. Great, I say. "Anything else I can help you with?" Yes, say I, did the upgrade cause this? "Yes, that's what I fixed. When the update is done, we have to go in and fix the account." AAAHHHHHAHHAAAHHAHAHHHHH!!!!!!


Persistent bad design is immoral.

And here I am. And here we are. I have been thinking about this subject, the immorality of bad design, for a while now and this story is good to kick a series of posts off with. In addition to the time I spent working on this post (about 2.5 hours), I have spent far more painful times dealing with the phone while actually trying to get things done. A tool, a device, especially an expensive one, that is bought to help with life should HELP!!!! This phone has interrupted important business calls, caused incorrect information to be sent, prevented timely wake-ups, etc. with all the attending difficulty, stress, frustration, tension, anger, delay, waste (esp. time), confusion, harm, etc.

It's wrong. It should change. We should demand it. We should make it better.

As I said earlier:

"Be bold in identifying bad design.

We simply must change the role of design from creating specifications to improving life."


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Quick thoughts on ... design!

Argh, it's been too long.

This was a response to a LinkedIn discussion (here: "UxD, IxD, or Web Designer?").

Be a good designer, not a generalist. Perhaps you design in the visual realm for desktop, perhaps for web, maybe for mobile. Maybe you design in voice. Maybe you design information structure and relationships (IA), maybe you design the back and forth and how (interaction), maybe you design the look and layout (graphic). Web designing is not coding. But web designing is designing...for the web. Be a good designer and design for more than the web. Design for people. Design for customers. Design connections. Play around. Break the barriers in your mind. The ones we think are in the world are mostly false.

- pnl

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Designer documentary

This just showed up on gizmodo via ixda, a documentary about designers. Looks very cool.

Let's hope it make us designers feel all warm and fuzzy but also opens eyes about the whys and hows of design.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Do your dinner guests quiver in excitement...or in fear?

Can you cook? I mean really cook? I mean your friends and family love it when you host the dinner party and your appetizer is the first one attacked at the potluck. If so, chances are that the word recipe has significance similar to "guidelines" or even "suggestions" rather than "rules" or "the straight and narrow". Design is like cooking. And as with cooking, there are those who generate joy and delight during the creation and consumption, there are those who get a job done, and there are those who really ought to re-examine the color of their parachute.

As I was contemplating writing this post and using this metaphor, I came across this from Bill Buxton (in his wonderful book Sketching User Experiences, also linked to earlier): "(L)isting ingredients is always risky. Just because I give you flour, milk, yeast, eggs, and an oven does not mean that you know how to make bread at all, much less the multitude of variations that you might find in a good bakery." This is exactly the sort of analogy I had been thinking about. Just because someone knows the design process and a pattern or two and what the end product is generally supposed to be like does not mean that that person is a designer. He goes on to discuss the complexities and content of designing, but let me make sure this is clear. Neither I, nor he, are drawing a parallel to needing more unrestrained creativity in design. In other words, the parameters of cooking are typically a little larger and looser than the design we practice, and I am not stating that designers should practice wild creativity, though it can be a good thing. I am saying that far too many people calling themselves designers are at best good only at finding and following a recipe and at worst are burning toast. Now, I don't mean most, but simply too many. But that condition has been true for many years and has led to many of the problems that we have with consumer rejection of our interface product. All who call themselves designers need to frequently examine whether they are truly performing a service in the best sense of that word. I have come to believe that there is an element of morality in the design profession, similar to being a physician or a law enforcement official. Which means that practicing design simply to earn a buck or have something to do is lacking ethically and morally. It does a disservice and may even cause harm greater than the negative economic consequences it leads to.

So, if you cannot claim to be even a recipe follower, then I encourage to do some self-examination and consult people you trust about changing careers. If you are a recipe follower, I encourage you to seek the path of becoming a chef. And if you are a chef, I implore you most strongly and even charge you with the responsibility of exercising ethics and morality in your design practice:

Always practice the best design possible.

Always point out when design compromise will lead to intolerable consequences.

Be bold in identifying bad design.

We simply must change the role of design from creating specifications to improving life.

Make 2009 the Year of Good Design.

Happy New year!