design

All posts tagged design

This is a “quick” recap of my thoughts.

My 1st 3D modeling machine was a Quadra 800

What has been up with me some may wonder. Well, a lot. I moved, decided to pivot & am restarting my career. Oh course whenever you do that, you get a ton of recruiters emailing you with jobs from your old profession, that are no longer suitable to you. Thanks to life events, I can’t work the long hours demanded, and besides that — despite my deceptively younger looks — I’m not a spring chicken anymore. Along with that, I realized that I can’t do repairs of small devices anymore. This is somewhat sad. But considering that my iFixit kit has paid itself off at least 10 times over the years, it’s not that bad of an outcome. Another change is my outlook. Before April of this month, my view on life was that I had to clear my plate of everything put in front of me or let it pile up. However looking at my reading list, there are literally over 100 articles I simply bookmarked after the synopsis or intro that I never got back to. Add to that the countless languages (markup or compiled) I’ve looked at learning and we see a truly daunting list. I’ve decided that things will get my attention as they always have: as needed. The one thing I am putting on my plate over and over until I learn it is 3D. This follows my 2 decade old foray into 3D when I bought some, now defunct, program to run on my Quadra 800. It took hours to ray trace a simple render test. However now it is for modeling objects for 3D printing. While you will never hear me call myself a 3D artist, it is one skill I know I can pickup again. My skills are in a constant state of flux. Last year I spent recuperating from yet another person who overestimated their stopping distance and ended up plowing into my car and injuring me. The more things change…

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Practice, Practice, Practice

When I am consulting with a client, and navigating on my machine they are absolutely stunned at the speed of me using just the GUI. I have to remind them: I’ve been using GUIs for 30 years — starting from the very first Macintosh, and using various OSes since then (from BeOS to X-windows and back again). Given my use “cross-training” and approximately 40,000+ hours (conservatively) of using practically every type of app, I’d think I would be an expert at efficiently navigating almost any app. As a side effect, I have also gotten very good at spotting good and bad UI. If I don’t know how to do something: I usually know the magic words and the search terms to use. If even I cannot find info quickly, then something about either your apps and/or your documentation is lacking.

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The commercially available GUI is now over 30 years old. We all know that what was once a paradigm altering way that communications engineers, researchers & computer scientists could interact with their machine has firmly cemented itself in the landscape of interfaces, as the mice and trackpads that came with it. Initially the GUI was called a novelty that would quickly wear out its welcome by companies that have since staked everything on their misunderstanding of how a GUI should act. Now that a more common use paradigm is direct touch. The conventions useful & familiar with the desktop metaphor have been replaced by a graphic icon collection to open an app suited to the task. Again people who’s thinking is still bound by conventions of prior use paradigms that either work poorly or not at all without alteration to fit into new paradigms is hobbling the efficiency of their user base. The base-line of porting UI to a tocuh UI has been accomplished: where it was a double click to open, it is just one tap; where it was a menu bar window, it is now a navbar & bottom “tab/panel/view.”

However, Before this current paradigm shift happened, the GUI had already been mutating between versions & various OS platforms until new conventions were tried & failed or took root. Often multiple ways to interact are allowed in most desktop OSes, & between platforms some interactions are preferred, while other are simply cumbersome. Somewhere along the way the fundamentals of UI design were forgotten & exchanged for the slickest looking UI and usability took a backseat to aesthetics because the people who placed aesthtics fist didn’t realize that aesthetics and usability are tied together.  Thus the interactions needed to perform an advanced task became unnecessarily cumbersome, and furthered the knowledge gap between the novice and the competent.

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Don’t get me wrong. The people at MacUpdate usually do a great job of managing and taking user feedback. But even with their careful curation of Mac & iOS apps that receive updates (sometimes numbering close to 100 OS X apps alone in one day), things slip through the cracks. I wasted about 5 minutes trying to figure out why an updated app was not available via one-click update using the built in software updater nor MacUpdate’s Desktop app. After going to MacUpdate, it was only by reading the comment and then hovering above the download link that the answer was clear: the app was a beta, and using the built-in update tools both within the native app & the MacUpdate Desktop App wouldn’t work. Even though I have “show beta/pre-release” unchecked, it still showed up in the MacUpdate Desktop list.

I realized the problem when looking at the comment and the confusion about version numbers used and how Adobe doesn’t distinguish betas with “b” or “(beta).” Then I took a few minutes to write this. The focus is not what MacUpdate did — it is an edge case which reflects more poorly on Adobe. Instead it is a example of what UI designers everywhere are doing to the detriment of both advanced and novice users everywhere.

Making Simplicity Difficult (Form Over Function)

If you accept that the purpose of computers is to make tasks easier to accomplish than doing them without them, then what follows is logical. When the interface gets so polished the labels are rubbed off, advanced features are hidden or removed, and labels are replaced unlabeled/undocumented icons, it leads to problems using an application no matter what type of device the application runs on. Here is my brief comment on that.

I don’t mind clean, nice-looking interface (I strive to balance aesthetics with easy-to-access, powerful features), but don’t let streamlined designs actually slow productivity; whether that productivity is actually getting work done or doing administrative tasks such as updating your software.

This confusion is a clear case of form over function, which is the wrong direction (unless you’re selling soda or commodities…) for computing interfaces to head because it handicaps learning via obscuring helpful, orientating/navigating details and slows advanced users.

If the trend in UIs were to spill over in the real word, we would see street signs replaced with pictures of maps and street addresses removed from the front, and instead only inside each building. Menus boards would have descriptions and prices hidden, until a person opened a flap to read the price and description.

In houses rather than work aesthetics around function, some streamlined houses would only have one control panel that controlled all the lighting, heating, etc. but that panel would be fixed next to the circuit breaker box. If a house had individual light switches, they’d be placed at whim of a designer who never lived or had even been in a house. Some would be oriented at any angle the designer liked and on any surface — some nowhere near the door or on one or both sides of the door. Some switches would glow only when they were off, and not when they are on, and vice versa which is actually happening with electronic switches. All building layouts would depend on the whim of a designer that had no concept of architectural design patterns nor a care about the building’s function.

This current trend toward “flatness” that was a backlash against “skeuomorphic” design of last generation all dance around the real point of GUIs: to make things easier by giving feedback to users that allows them to assess both current application state and orient where they are in the system. The trend is stripping away both of these, making things harder to use, not easier. Sadly, people think simplifying the interface will help users whose learning is being retarded by confusing inconsistent and low-feedback designs. This over-simplification is in fact hurting more than helping. This is because simple is not necessarily a synonym for easy. (Easy things are simple, but simple things are not always easy oddly enough.) Product managers and designers think people want simple, when they really want easy. Making things easy should be the focus. The easier a more complex the task is, the more useful your software.

Making Complexity Easy (Form Follows Function)

Designers should look for the frustrating points and the complex points and make complex tasks as easy as possible — which means removing steps if it can be done without making the user’s knowledge have to ramp up greater than the complex steps.

This is my Menubar. This is easy:

menubar

It is very dense with information. By looking at it you can see with a glance that Bluetooth is on, I’m connected to the network with light traffic, my processor load, my sound volume, the day & date, my current battery level (full) & that I am plugged in, the time, the moon phase, the CPU temperature & CPU voltage draw. I could have the default OS X menubar, but then I wouldn’t be able to see this without opening applications, slowing me down. I often refer to network speeds and CPU load when something seems bogged down. I often check the date and time, and that calendat icon pulls down so I can see my schedule in Fantastical without opening the Calendar App. The functionality is available if I pull down my sound menu is Audio Switcher.

audio-switcher

All these save me time each use. The march of Menu Items and GUI Enhancements I use all take a complex array of data, navigation, and bother of doing complex things and make some of them a click or less away. While this might be ugly to some, it is not distracting and works well. This is my current balance point, but with each stripping down towards “simplicity,” this ease becomes more difficult. Thankfully the developers of iStat Menus, Fantastical, Bartender, Audio Switcher, Moom, TotalFinder, Default Folder X, Alfred and PopCar (among others) see the problem that streamlined interfaces bring. But rather than strip away information, they strive to arrange information in a way that is not overwhelming and give user configurable interfaces to really harness the power of a GUI. These companies (while not all perfect — some have fallen into this hole at least slightly) have UI designers, not artists making flat colorful mystery icons with unpredictable UIs that confuse people calling themselves UX designers.

(I think of myself more as a User/Communication Efficiency type of person, so while the “UX Designer” title sounds fancy, I’d rather be a “User Interface Communication Efficiency Designer” to put the emphasis not of the “experience” of using a product, but on the efficient use of communications media available. Plus, UICED sounds like a term that could be played with. But titles are kind of limiting in a way… so I’ll just be myself. When people ask me my title, I just sum it up to say “IT Consultant” since whenever I actually start to talk tech I notice most people’s eyes glaze over.)

I try to focus on what matters to get work done, so I can get work done with less effort and faster. Anything that gets hinders more than helps my efforts falls out of use. BTW, if you are not familiar with these products, many are mentioned and linked on my Recommended Apps page. You can also check out MacUpdate.com and see the trove of software — most at least decent — that they list. They are good guys, so if you see errors, write them and be nice please. They will get back to you if needed with a personally written reply, which is always worth a star in my book. “When I was a kid several days of Mac SW updates could fit on one page… now several pages might span one day.”

Thanks for reading.

While I have often said that a lot of UI changes are simply eye candy, and add nothing important other than “bling” to a design, not all UI changes fall into that category. However, looking back, I noticed my posts have beat around this huge unaddressed important distinction of UI design that pretty much no company and very few active designers today seems to completely understand, judging from the latest and “greatest” products that are just as confusing for experienced users as they are for newbies.

While, we all seem to inherently understand some form of graphic design language, few aside from UI designers are conscious of it. And even fewer of the professionals understand this graphic design language has rules and conventions based on solid interaction principles. They seem to take for granted, that this control is a certain way without question, and either they use it improperly or worse, they break the convention. Both of these problems are caused because the UI designer does not know the reason behind the convention. I am sure many UI designers will rebuff me — and know the reasons behind certain choices, but not all. The problem is, if the designer has read literature or learned UI from someone else that omitted the explanations and reasoning behind the conventions, they only have half an education.

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I reply to an article on linked in about the meaning of Jobs’ “not listening to customers” and a better (more Apple-like) approach to product design from my point of view, augmented with intensive needs assessment. All part of my “push/code/design to edges” concept I developed last millennia.

http://noivad.10centuries.com/2014/06/20/on-listening-to-customers/

Because ad-free is a lot nicer…

 

After I was hired to be a DTP monkey, I applied and refined my wild layouts, but had to tone them down quite a bit for business documents. (Wired back then was tame compared to my unrefined layout.) Being a bit of a perfectionist that cares about anything I do—whether paid or not—I started studying proper typography: I learned the difference between the hyphen, N-dash and M-dash, what x-height was and how to match serif and non-serif fonts. I studied the art of graphic design, the concepts and research behind the guidelines so I knew when I could break the rules and get away with it. I found traditional reports stuffy and boring. So, when I got the chance, I started refreshing the look of the company documents.

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The unofficial-turned-official club newsletter was directly responsible for me landing my first real job as a DTP monkey. I walked into the interview with my portfolio of club newsletter and stickers I made on my old Mac SE and the Mac IIci my best friend had that were printed on my trusty, 70+ pound LaserWriter II SC with the Canon engine that lasted well over a decade. The guy who interviewed me was a bit skeptical that I made those. I was honest and told him that I didn’t do all the work, and that I had a friend that started the newsletter. I showed him what *** did and what I did — explaining how you could tell our layout and writing styles apart.

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