May 05, 2003

User Experience Themes, Part I: Craft and Engineering

This past weekend I was asked to speak to a group of graphic designers and art directors about user experience in general, and my work in particular. This opportunity for reflection brought up four recurring themes in my work, themes that pose more questions than offer answers.

Of late, the theme most on my mind is Reconciling Craft and Engineering. A bit back, on a mailing list for information architects, Jesse wrote, "We are artisans, too often trying to get by with the methods of engineers."

In my experience, we have to be both, and finding the appropriate balance is among the most challenging aspects of our practice. I suppose this is a classic left-brain/right-brain conflict.

My own gut tendency is toward engineering. (Had I not had a miserable experience in learning multi-variable calculus in 12th grade, I could have very possibly become some form of physicist.) I'm most comfortable solving problems through rigorous data gathering and analysis. I seek to understand how people process information so that I can tailor systems to satisfy them. I figure that if I get all the details right, order and meaning will emerge. I'm hesitant to consider any design as "final" that hasn't been tested with potential users.

In the field of user experience the products we develop must, above all else, *work*. What I mean is that they must function in order to support their users. Before it looks good, before it conveys the latest business direction, before it satisfies the designer's artisanal desires, the product must enable users to support their tasks at hand. Such a functional approach, by necessity, requires an engineering approach.

When dealing with web user experience, another factor to consider is that no product is 'finished.' Unlike other design disciplines where you create a final finished artifact (package, magazine ad, television commercial, industrial design product, etc.), web sites live on, and, so, must be maintained. Maintenance requires an explicit detailing of how the product works, why certain design decisions were made, and tools for keeping it running. This, too, favors an engineering approach.

In fact, I've worked at design companies that took an artisanal approach to web site design, where the designers crafted a beautiful solution derived from intuition and their incomparable ability to execute on it. Clients would receive this work, not know quite what to do with it (since they didn't share or understand the artisanal vision), and would often alter it beyond recognition. In this instance, no one is happy--the agency can no longer point to the work as an exemplar, and the clients feel they spent a lot of money on something that didn't work for them.

So, for the sake of playing it safe, we assume engineering methods, either from the field of usability engineering (in order to ensure our products will work), from library and information science (relying on accepted practice in the organization of information), and computer science (from database design to human-computer interaction).

Unfortunately those methods lead to overly reductive approaches, wherein you attempt to address every little problem in the system. We aim for solutions the success of which can be easily measured, and this doesn't take into account the reality of the messineess of the systems we're creating. We provide a false sense of structure and order on top of what is chaos.

Perhaps most damaging, and what I suspect Jesse was getting at in his statement, is that such reduction limits our ability for insight. For seeing the Big Picture. For making the intuitive leap that will push the design to the 'next level.'

The logical extreme of this precedence of the engineering approach is that every site looks and operates similarly, because the reductive methods will result in the same solutions. And you're seeing that emerge across the web, in travel sites, financial services sites, much of e-commerce.

And while it's been important for sites to achieve that baseline of functionality and usability, we're reaching a point where it's imperative that we move beyond that. It's time to utilize insight to provide a unique engagement for our visitors. Not that we ought to abandon engineering methods. Far from it -- we need to figure out ways to merge craft and engineering to provide the greatest satisfaction.

Posted by peterme at 08:53 AM | Comments (39) | TrackBack