A Streetcar Named Disaster

It’s official. Oslo’s public transport company, Ruter, and NSB, the Norwegian State Railways, are now abandoning the Flexus electronic ticket system, which was to provide Oslo’s commuters with a single ticket for all public transport. It took 10 years and 600 million NOK – and they still didn’t manage to get it right. According to Julie Runde Krogstad, who wrote her Master’s thesis on the ill-fated project, the reason for the failure was that the transport companies involved had different priorities, and ignored the users completely. Sounds about right.

Is Chrome a Crime?

Yesterday, Steven Poole published his manifesto “Against Chrome” on 3quarksdaily.com. He wasn’t referring to Google’s popular web browser, but rather to the now ubiquitous visual interface style with shiny metallic surfaces and gleaming buttons that evokes some highly polished piece of machinery. Most of us use one or more such applications, be it web browsers, word processors, or apps for our mobile phone. Poole argues that this has gotten completely out of hand, and points to music creation software, which has certainly gone to great lengths in imitating actual sound gear such as amps, mixers, and the like. In place of such excesses, Poole advocates a new and simpler aesthetic for user interfaces, inspired by (ironically) a Microsoft product, Windows Phone 7.

I have great sympathy for Poole’s point of view. I have seen plenty of garish interfaces that quite pointlessly imitates actual objects, and whose designers are obviously as infatuated with visual “bling” as a mediocre rap artist. Still, let us pause for a minute and think before we throw out the baby with the bath water.

Admittedly, there are plenty of bad interfaces out there, and some designers don’t think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. Almost nobody is entirely immune from this kind of thing, even Apple has had its bad moments (remember “brushed metal”?). However, imitating physical reality isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. When the graphical user interface was born, the metaphor of the desktop, the document and the waste basket put a familiar and friendly face on the computer, and helped users understand what they could do, and how. Due to limited graphical processing capabiity, the visual representations were simple, almost crude by present-day standards, but they were none the less highly effective, and have been instrumental in making the computer a household item, something that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

I feel that this approach is still quite valuable, especially because our opportunity to use visual representations in interfaces has improved dramatically. Where the early GUI pioneers had to content themselves with simple bitmapped symbols, our options are endless. We can use this power to benefit the user directly. A button, for instance, is far easier to understand if it looks three-dimensional and pressable. And even though we all use computers daily, many users still face hurdles where the proper use of graphics can be of real help.

And proper use is really what it’s all about. The problem that Poole points out is caused by designers designing cool-looking stuff just because they can, and forgetting the user in the process. For each thing we want to add, we should ask ourselves whether or not it will benefit the user. If we can do that, our interfaces should improve a lot.

The Big Picture

How large should pictures on the web be? Once upon a time the main limitation was bandwidth, but those times are (mostly) gone. Technically speaking we have a lot more latitude than we used to. But that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. At least, not if we want good web communication.

95% of all content is still text, which means that pictures remain a secondary form of content. Pictures are also unreliable as information carriers, as they have to be interpreted by the user, and because that interpretation depends on on the user’s background and experiences, it’s almost unavoidable that pictures are interpreted differently. A picture usually depends on text in some way for a correct interpretation, and on the web that text is usually a headline. Therefore it’s a great mistake for newspapers such as dagbladet.no to use pictures that are so large as to push the relevant headline below the fold. This violates the principle of not letting important content be displaced by something of lesser importance, and to make matters worse, the content is pushed further down by advertising we’re even less interested in. What we end up with is a news service where you have to scroll even to read the main article, and where you can whistle for anything like page scanability.

Dagbladet.no is by no means the only offender. Large pictures are growing in popularity on the web, and usually, good communication suffers because of it,

It’s like we’re trying to copy print media just because we can. But this is the web – other rules apply.

How your website looks is really important. But not in the way you think.

In the mid-90’s, when the web was still relatively new, I gave a talk at a gathering of fellow designers. Like everyone who has discovered something new, I looked forward to showing it to everybody, and hoped they would all be as excited as I was about the new medium and all it had to offer. I was headed for disappointment. Halfway through, when I was explaining about some of the technical details, somebody asked: “Does this mean that we can’t use any font we want?” When I confirmed this, an incredulous hush fell across the room. I think a lot of my fellow designers wrote off the web as a field for their skills right there and then.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Many clients wanted websites, and they needed someone to design them. And the designers designed, albeit somewhat reluctantly. The limitations were many and irksome, and things somehow never looked quite good enough. And this craving for good-looking websites has beset businesses for years. Because of it, many businesses have been stuck with websites that have provided limited value. Because of it, the public have been tearing their hair over unusable banking services, unnavigable government sites, and impenetrable information sites. The crowning glory came earlier this year, when the Flash-based Black Metal jeans(!) shopping site Anti-Sweden was awarded Best Website of the Year at the Gulltaggen awards.

We need to pull ourselves together. We designers must now take on board that design is supposed to serve the content, and not the other way around. We must stop allowing ourselves to be ruled by aestethics alone, and try to put both the users’ and our clients’ needs first. But this requires both another approach and a different vision. Designers need to get their hands dirty again.

Why and how? That’s going to be the subject of this blog. To paraphrase Woody Allen: “Is design dirty? Only if you do it right”.