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UI's 7 Great Controversies

Jack Bellis, September 4, 2007

Synopsis: Controveries abound in design, and UI design is no exception. Here's my list.

1. Personas or software that serves all person(a)s extremely well.

Although their use in marketing-centric work is perfectly justified, I challenge the emphasis being placed on personas in software application work (web or desktop). To the extent that they are a vehicle to get developers to appreciate real user dilemmas, they indicate our failure to manage the engineering process. To the extent that they enable a development team to focus on core functionality at the expense of "edge" functions, or cater to either learnability or power at the expense of the other, personas highlight a failure of the creative process; there are plenty of software applications that prove these tradeoffs are unnecessary.

2. Prescriptive design or adaptive design?

I spend all of my time in environments where the complaint at the end of every rushed development cycle is "why don't we have the requirements right in the first place, and ready early enough to get the job done on time." The notion of achieving those two ideals is called prescriptive design. The opposing force is called adaptive design... adjusting the design all along the way. When you adjust the design even after the product can be used, that's part of what's called usability testing; for thousands of years it was called trial-and-error, but high-paying jobs just don't sound so good that way. ("I work for Oracle/Microsoft/NASA and I do trial-and-error.")

Prescriptive design, was never a true solution. It might once have been 90% real and 10% dream. But with the number of moving parts in today's software, and the shift to instant development tools, the balance too has shifted. The prescriptive portion of the design (the part any one of us is smart enough to plan out) is probably only 40-60% of the journey. The rest is adjustment on the fly, and constantly through the life of the product. I used to think of and use NASA as the paragon of prescriptive design... you wouldn't fly in the Space Shuttle if it were done without 100% planned engineering, would you? But even the paragon blew up two vessels, mostly through preventable engineering, not whims of Mother Nature. (For the O-rings and tiles they had to use adaptive design.)

3. Menus-and-dialogs or page-hyperlink navigation?

I believe that the drop-down menus and OK/Cancel dialogs of the Win/Mac paradigm have a persistent place in software design and will persevere for dozens or possibly several hundred years. We like to flatter ourselves that everything changes so rapidly, but it's not that fast. We still don't have flying cars. Drop-down menus show up on plenty of web pages because they're the most powerful solution once you have over approx 30 items. The dialog metaphor has an important benefit when questions *must* be answered.

4. Fewest clicks or best design?

Best design. That's why it's called design, because it depends.

5. Foolish consistency or best design?

The term "consistency" is so vague as to be meaningless. Without adding a modifier, such as "rote visual" consistency, discussion is silly. A1989 article attempting to make an erudite argument against consistency is an argument with a fool. In fact a good argument could be made that design is the opposite of consistency, but I won't argue with a fool.

Minimize the use of "modes"; respect any external conventions that "have currency"; make your system's controls behave—that's the key, behavior—similarly in most situations, and neither fools nor smart, frustrated users will show up at your door muttering the "C word."

6. Simplicity or power-and-learnability?

Power-and-learnability. "Tog: Usability and learnability are not mutually exclusive." Complexity is not the enemy. Making complexity easy to learn, and then quick to use and reuse, is the job. If you want to choose only one, become an aluminum siding salesman or something.

7. Left-aligned or right-aligned labels?

No one cares. Eye tracking studies, though fun, are diminishing returns for such purposes. Design it well and people won't actually be reading the labels. The more I read on the topic, the more I like left-aligned.


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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