Tag Archives: design

Improving hardware and software usability, but for whom?

stock-footage-social-network-on-touch-screen-tablet-pc-with-finger-touching-screen-and-arranging-wordsLast year, I read an astute saying that said “If you didn’t pay to use a service, then you are the product being sold”. I feel like that kind of “buyer beware” maxim could be applied to ease-of-use in information technologies too. Here’s what I mean…

If a technology tool or platform is popular, we could say that, in part, because it’s easier to use than the competition, the usability aspect of its design was likely a core business strategy. Hardware designers might talk of “build quality” and ergonomics – it’s all about usability.

Today, usability is deeply integrated into product design and marketing. For example, let’s take the rise of tablet computing platforms – most popularly, the Apple iPad. Many users who are new, or technologically-intimidated, or very young or old, will likely have an easier time using a touch-tablet like the iPad than they would using a desktop computer. Compared to the user experience of manipulating a mouse and keyboard on a desk to manipulate objects on a screen, touching your finger to a screen on a tablet (primarily one that has an OS that is designed for touch use) is much easier for a new or unfamiliar user. You don’t have to “get used” to using a mouse (i.e. training yourself that a wrist movement of a few inches from left to right across your desk will translate into a one-foot left-to-right motion of a pointer on the screen in front of your face). This basic aspect of the windows-mouse-icon-pointer interface is actually a barrier to use: a new user must practice a little bit before they can easily manipulate graphical objects using a mouse.

In this regard, smartphone and tablet-based computing have been absolute game-changer technologies for many people. Apple and many other manufacturers knew this, and were waiting for touch-screen technology to become sophisticated and inexpensive enough to bring to the mass market.

These devices are used to access many free and for-pay information and media services. People don’t really think about the way it is – they just want to be able to use these devices – these new gadgets – to get at the news, music, movies, or games that they want. Corporations seem to have taken a cue from the original “information on the Internet should be free” ethos that evolved through the 70s, 80s and 90s, and subverted it by making books, apps and games available on tablets for only a few dollars, or even for free. Buying an iPad game that will give you dozens of hours of fun will cost you about the same as a pack of bubble gum. That’s one barrier gone. After you download it, you can use it right away – installation is usually fast and minimal. That’s another barrier gone.

From a business perspective, making a platform easier to use (usability), and making the purchase process easier to complete (one-click fulfillment) and easier to justify (cheap or free) will easily result in more purchases. Amazon’s “One-click” purchase button was the first place I saw this kind of supermarket checkout “impulse purchase” tactic at work. I had disposable income, and Jeff Bezos and Amazon made it extremely easy for me to dispose of it on a whim. I could “impulse buy” a thirty dollar hardcover book with even less effort than it would take to grab a candy bar at the checkout aisle at Safeway. Tablets with apps and books that can be bought for under a dollar, while you’re laying in bed at night, are about as convenient and impulsive as it gets.

It means that the end-user consumer must exercise some discretion and will power to avoid nickel and diming themselves down to a negative balance in their bank account. A high degree of usability in the device itself makes for a pleasing and satisfying user experience, and ubiquitous cheap online products in a “one-click marketplace make it deceptively easy to please the vendors.

So, if it’s too easy to use, be careful. You might use it too often.

Buyer beware.

The weight of a Dragon; the position of a Rock.

Today, I enjoyed a visit and stimulating discussion with one of my earliest art school teachers, John Wertschek, currently an Associate Professor at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

I suppose that many of John’s former Foundation students would probably agree that he has, in one way or another, challenged them to imagine the previously unimaginable. Certainly this was the case for me in John’s “3D” course, back in 1985 at what was then called the Emily Carr College of Art + Design.

I remember “The Rock Game”, an “exercise” (for lack of a better word) situated in a low-lit room on a table that was surrounded by mostly high-school-aged young people. On the table was a collection of rocks of varying sizes, which each participant would take turns moving or re-orienting. That was the whole thing. The Rock Game could be called a “no rules” game, but it required reaction, space, material and personal decisions, so although “rule-less” it might have been,  it was not without structure or outcomes. Very zen, or whatever. 🙂

As an eager 19 year old who wanted to experience many new things, my take-away from that simple little game was “pay attention, feel, respond, and act for yourself”.

John liked to use words – their meanings, origins, sounds and similarities – to illustrate and challenge patterns of  thought. Sometimes the challenge was a visualization and/or a creative thought experiment, such as “build a device with which to weigh a dragon”.

I also took away one deceptively simple piece of practical advice from John: “The two most important books you’ll ever use in your life are the Yellow Pages and the Dictionary.” Something in that advice told me that the door was open for me to go through, the resources and information out there if I looked for them, and that I should give myself permission to act when I needed to. (What the hell was I waiting around for anyway?)

So today, my dictionary and my business directories are Wikipedia  and Google, and if I still have rocks to move around, they’re metaphysical or more often than not, composed of pixels. But the personal process contains a similar proposition: make a move, and do it with intention and integrity.

Today, John told me that back when I was doing my Foundation year, about 50-60% of the students were fresh out of high school, and that now, the number is more like 85%.

For a young generation of digital natives, acclimatized to immediate, packaged information and real-time access to a thousand opinions and personas, it makes me think  that the kind of face-first, open-ended explorations which can cause you to question, reflect and think for yourself are now more important than ever.

Related Links:

On Creativity: Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”

I first read this piece from designer Bruce Mau about a dozen years ago. It’s still good to read these words from time to time, and take them as a personal challenge…

Incomplete Manifesto for Growth (brucemaudesign.com)

“This design manifesto was first written by Bruce Mau in 1998, articulating his beliefs, strategies, and motivations. The manifesto outlines BMD’s design process…”

On Design: Fulfilling the Urge to Learn and Create

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed.

I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein,  periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

My inner pragmatist has a very strong voice, compelling me to be practical and look for employment opportunities which allow me to use my familiar skills, or to cast a diverse search, in the hopes that I’ll have the right skills in the areas that a prospective employer wants.

“Update or Risk Being Left Behind” – Technical Skills

I started out in computer graphics over 20 years ago, back when the adjective “computer” actually distinguished you from the airbrush artists and print illustrators who were using photo-mechanical processes to create their graphics. I began creating 2D and 3D animation and titles for video, and then got into graphics, icon design and screen layouts for software projects. From these experiences, I always wondered about and cared about the viewer – who they were and what they needed from my work.

Any print design work (business cards, letterhead, and other stock) seemed to come about incidentally from the needs of my current employer or from some freelance opportunity. I wanted to become a good designer, and I especially wanted to know how print design was executed. I became interested in design as an exercise to see how the principles of visual literacy that I’d studied at Emily Carr College were involved, and how style and society influence design.

Overall though, being a child of the TV era, motion, animation and interactivity have always seemed to stimulate me more than static imagery. Over the years, my curiosity about my audience became more and more informed through experience, and began to transform into an interest in usability, and user-centred design.

Gradually, my interest in the user’s experience (the front end) blended into an interest in web site programming (the back end), and so I took opportunities to learn (or at least hack around in) languages like Rexx, Perl, Cold Fusion, Javascript and PHP.

So, my deal is that I’ve been a kind of a Swiss Army Knife of design – I can do (and have done) a little bit of everything. This is also called a Jack of all Trades. I struggle against the corollary of that old chestnut, the dreaded “Master of None”. However, at the 20 year mark in my professional career as a visual designer, I must admit that my skill-set does now feel rather idiosyncratic and in need of a refresh.

In the early days of my career, there weren’t the same dominant players in terms of software tools or computing platforms. I started out building web pages using text editors on Unix, so if I had nothing more than Pico (or, heaven forbid, vi) and a simple Paint program, I could still build a web site. I still tend to be biased towards getting my hands dirty in HTML source code, but as technology has changed over the years and become more complicated and abstract, working solely at the source code level has become more and more difficult.

Nowadays, Adobe is the undisputed “big dog” in the world of print and interactive design tools. I knew that I needed to upgrade my toolkit and skills, so after some online research and reading, I decided to bite the bullet and buy Adobe CS5 Web Edition. With the exception of a video editing suite from Corel and an animation program from another vendor, my whole digital studio will be powered by Adobe.

The challenge for me now is to get up to speed on the current generation of tools, and relearn how to do things in a new, more integrated design environment. For example, a lot of the different tasks that I used to do with four different tools can now all be done within Dreamweaver.

Many Things to Learn

From a practical and creative challenge standpoint, I’ve found that combining a number of related goals into a common, over-arching activity makes a lot of sense for me. Translation: I like to kill lots of birds with as few stones as possible, and my learning opportunities work best when they have a practical goal.

Case(es) in point:

  • When rebuilding my online portfolio, I learned Flash Catalyst in order to create a Flash-based portfolio application that presented a richer user-experience than a straight HTML site, and allowed for fade transitions and nicer graphics.
  • …however, because I now had a larger portfolio with more projects to present, the above project became too complex for a first Catalyst project (which is meant more as a Flash prototyping tool), so I abandoned the Catalyst approach in favour of a new HTML design that used the Lightbox Javascript library, with which I was already familiar. I was still able to use most of previous design and almost all of the production graphics that I’d already created. I’m still satisfied with the end result.
  • I needed to learn about prototyping web pages using Adobe Fireworks. When my ex-employer asked me to update their website and change some of their menu structure, I used it as an opportunity to learn how to create a site wire-frame in PDF format, using Fireworks.
  • For years, I’ve wanted to update “True Life” (one of my personal websites), and change its design from a framed layout (yeah, I know – ancient) to a modern, non-framed layout that used Divs and CSS instead of tables and font tags (again,  ancient). I’m using this project as an opportunity to refresh my skills in Dreamweaver, starting with a pre-made Dreamweaver PHP template and its built-in tools to rebuild the entire site.

Related Posts:

On Design: Visual Literacy in Interface Design

On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

The Monument for East Vancouver

Ken Lum’s public art piece, “Monument for East Vancouver” transforms an ad-hoc symbol of regional pride (or defiance, membership or territorial claim) into a new landmark on the city’s skyline.

This piece is controversial… Some people love it, and some people hate it.

There are many opinions and interpretations of where the East Van cross came from, and what it means…

http://www.straight.com/article-281162/vancouver/what-heck-east-van-cross

http://vancouverisawesome.com/2010/01/12/east-van-cross/

I have gradually grown to love this piece. It stands at the corner of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way, facing downtown Vancouver like a ginormous middle finger, as if to say “Take that, rest of the city! We’re East Van!”

Like it or not, it’s definitely a symbol.

On Design: Visual Literacy in Interface Design

During my art education at Emily Carr College in the 80s, I took a unique opportunity to study visual literacy under the college’s Dean of Education, Tom Hudson. This research and study involved developing computer-based imagery research for Tom’s telecourse, “Mark and Image”.

In practical terms, it was like having a world-class personal tutor. We started off simply, using the limited personal computer resources available at the time. I remember using Koala Painter (with the KoalaPad and stylus) on a Commodore 64. I divided my screen into quadrants; the first of many “worksheets” which Tom had all his traditional-media drawing students do as well. Inside one of the quadrants, Tom instructed me to draw points and to arrange them spatially. “Feel the space between the points. Feel the space,” Tom’s voice told me. I smirked self-consciously, feeling too much like Luke Skywalker to Tom’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. But I was learning to watch and to listen. Tom’s guidance resonated with me and I kept at it, slowly beginning to learn about the space, pace, rhythm and texture of points, lines and shapes. We started in black and white, and moved into colour when we started looking at “primary” shapes and basic geometry.

I did dozens of screens like this on the C-64, and later, scores and scores more on the Amiga, where the spatial resolution and colour palette were significantly improved. However, it was still a pixely, chunky drawing medium, compared with paper, ink and charcoal. We learned that any deficiencies in resolution were quickly compensated for by the advantages of digital memory. “Cut and paste” and numerous other near-instant transformational capabilities provided by our little paint program provided us with almost unlimited possibilities for variations and explorations.

As for the drawing exercises themselves, it was a bit like learning a new kind of basic grammar, like learning musical notes, chords, and scales. I was actually learning a new vocabulary of visual elements; perceptual dynamics that underlie every man-made visual image. I learned later that the approach Tom took with his computer-based drawing students was based in the Bauhaus Basic Course, in principles taught by Wassily Kandinsky, and in aspects of visual perception documented by Rudolph Arnheim.

These were the same principles that Tom and his colleagues had infused into the British Art Education system back in the 1950s. So, I watched, I drew, and I studied, feeling part of a very fascinating modernist educational tradition.

Now, as I contemplate how my career has progressed and I continue to refine my skills in interface design, I must admit that those early teachings with Tom still have so much to offer me. His voice is still in my ear, and I need to keep listening…

See: “Visual Literacy in Software Design” (paper).

Reflections on a multimedia career…

All through my post-secondary education (four frantic, sleep-deprived, incredible years at art college), I seldom knew exactly what I wanted to do in art and design. I just knew what ideas excited me.

In the summer of 1985, once I learned that I was accepted the the Emily Carr College of Art and Design (after I peeled myself off the ceiling), I started to do a few things.

First I panicked, thinking “Gawd – can I do this?” I got over that phase.

Next, I began to imagine what it would be like to be an art student. Unfortunately, nothing but stereotypical images of painting and drawing came to my mind.

Finally, I realized that I needed to prepare myself in a few ways. I needed to assemble my portfolio and I needed to develop a little confidence, so I took a life drawing course at a small studio on Granville Island. I blushed self-consciously while trying to avoid the eyes of the nude model. I scribbled, muttered to myself, and produced a bunch of weak and tentative scribbles that I probably threw out later. As I was packing up to leave, I looked to the model as she was reaching for her robe, and she shot me a smile and a knowing look that both reassured me and told me that she knew just how green I was. I laughed on the inside, and walked home feeling some pride in having tried in my first life drawing class. I proudly announced to my Dad that I had done my first life drawing class. Once Dad realized that “life drawing” involved a nude model, he became very angry, growling “Why can’t you just draw fruit?!” Screw him, I thought. I was proud of myself. It wouldn’t be long before Dad felt proud too. That was pretty cool.

Fortunately, I passed my portfolio interview (and I still don’t know how I got through), and began Foundation (first year) studies at Emily Carr.

One of the first places where things really clicked for me was in Foundation Computer class. Even though it was 1985, and we were using Commodore 64s (and in one class, I swear to god I had a Vic-20 with a datasette), I became fascinated by those little machines that were capable of turning key-presses into little glowing blocks of colour and shape. I remember trying to memorize MS Basic character string functions like “Chr$(32)”, and trying to understand how BASIC worked. A year later, the college bought dozens of Macs, Amigas and Atari ST PCs, and we all began using mice and creating real computer-based graphics and animation.

I also began to consider the schism within myself: artistic and instinctual on the one side (my Mother), and structural and technical on the other side (my Father). Early on, I did not know how to reconcile these two aspects of my personality, but I knew that they would co-exist, and eventually, I developed the idea that they would interact or influence each other in some way.

In the following years, I developed a keen interest in multimedia, animation and video, and began to learn how these technologies were gradually converging (read Stewart Brand’s book “The Media Lab”). I absorbed as much media theory as my instructor Gary Lee Nova provided, got technical help designing simple electronic circuits from Dennis Vance, and studied on my own a lot (relationships between art, science and technology, cybernetics).

More than any other teacher I’ve had, Dr. Tom Hudson was a massive influence on me throughout my art student years. Under Tom’s tutelage and inspiration, I learned about visual literacy, and undertook experiments in colour and drawing in the Bauhaus and British post-war traditions. The main difference was that all my “vis-lit” research for Tom was executed on a microcomputer, using a commercial paint program. We were actually exploring and developing work in computer-based visual literacy. This extracurricular research work was used in Tom’s educational television series “Mark and Image”, and also published in two of his academic articles for the British Journal of Art and Design Education. These events remain my academic high-water marks, and form the springboard of my interest and development as a digital designer.

By a couple of years after graduation, I was developing icons, layouts and animations for the user interface of what was to become North America’s first home-based banking system. From there, my interest in GUI design and web design was born. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed working with software designers on GUI design projects for TV, game consoles, PC and web-based applications. The essentials of visual literacy, colour, design, perception, and user expectations have all been developed and refined through those practical, real-world design projects.

Now, 21 years after graduating from the ECCAD four year program and receiving my diploma in fine arts, I look at the preponderance of digital media and information systems in the world around me, and I’m amazed at how much that culture and technology have converged, and have even seemed to become practically inseparable.

I think that good digital design is more important than ever, and being able to work in multiple media, multiple formats and multiple modes of thought (artistic, technical, exploratory, practical) seems to me to be more important than ever.