It depends, but...
October 15, 2001
On the SIG-IA mailing list people have thinking about the "it depends" attitude all too common in the IA/UI/UX, and most notably, the usability professions. As in:

Client: What should I do to make my site more usable?

Usability Guru: Well, it depends…

Well it's time we're willing to say, "it depends, but here's what I recommend for you and your situation." And yes that means being accountable for our recommendations and decisions.

Whether we like it on not, most of us act as consultants whether we're in-house employees or external consultants/developers, since we generally are making recommendations/blueprints that are used to actually build the end site/product.

No sometimes—often times—we don't have enough data, enough analysis. That's where being a designer comes in, trusting your instincts and your experience. No you probably won't come up with the perfect solution, but hopefully you can come with a good one. Such is the designer's lot, same as it ever was.

IA/UI/UX is a craft— part art, part science. Problems come when people try to act as if it's solely one or the other. (One of the huge problems with the academic journals is that they suffer from "science envy"— to quantify more and more about less and less.)

In that regard, we'd do well to look at the field of graphic design. It doesn't have rules, it has rules of thumb— of thumb developed out of centuries of beta testing... There are well established principles of "good" design.

(And no don't ask me to articulate them at the moment because they've become so ingrained they're difficult to verbalize, but any entry-level graphic design book will talk about them. Interestingly enough, beginning designers often tend to cling to the rules (or at least the style) of various design gurus just as much as inexperienced IAs/UIs/UXs cling to the rules laid down by our "gurus.")

But these design principles have to be realized within particular contexts, which means there's more than one "right" way to design something. And it's commonplace in the print design world that in the early stages of a project for either multiple designers try solving the same problem, or a single designer is asked to come up with multiple solutions. From these the best solution is chosen (and may incorporate elements from the losing designs). That said, "reasonable designers," despite differences in personal taste, can usually agree on whether something well/badly designed.

If we're a bit more confused than graphic designers as a discipline with widely understood guiding principles, it's because:

1) IA/UI/UX have been around for a few decades rather than a few centuries, so we're still figuring things out (just as designers had to invent page headers and footers, page numbers, tables of contents, etc.); and

2) the problems are more complex and the failure more visible in interaction design. You're far less likely to notice a brochure that fails to communicate effectively due to poor layout, than if half your customers bail on a poorly designed shopping cart.

Ironically, I'm going to be speaking an AIGA event, which although it's about experience design, will also talk about how graphic designers can apply user-focused goal-directed design in creating print materials. ::

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Your thoughts…

Would be interested to know what AIGA event you are speaking at?

I think your analysis of the state of the UI/IA/UX profession in the timeline of it's existence as compared to graphic design is probably right on. Design has gone through a lot of this sould searching. I think the reasons why so many of the new practioners are going through this is because they are coming from different disciplines and everything is new.

Except it isn't. We need to remember and pull from the older crafts and disciplines and add to them in the new space of what we know now.

We need to stand together and be committed and confident in our knowledge and expertise and know that it is ok to say "It Depends" and clarify that with our clients.

erin @ 10.16.2001

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