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September 21, 2002

Information architecture and morality

Matt Goddard dispenses justice to someone asking about the usability of Dynamic HTML: "Since when do usability architects focus on technology and not the user?  It doesn't matter what technology you implement a feature with, as long as the user can easily determine how to use it."

Since blaming Jakob Nielsen is now the done thing, let's see if we can lay this one at his door as well.  Nielsen has spend quite some time savaging Flash for its appalling impact on usability, and quite rightly so.  Now Nielsen's condemnation was not directed at Flash-the-technology, but at Flash-the-design-school: the graphic design marketroids who believed the Web was a platform for them to wow their art school chums, and if the proles had to learn a different scrolling technique for every site they visited then that was a legitimate sacrifice in the name of Art.  Nielsen's work for Macromedia trying to educate Flash designers in usability clearly demonstrates that he understands the distinction.

Unfortunately, his constituency does not.  They read headlines like "Flash: 99% Bad" and conclude that Flash-the-technology is inherently unusable.  By extension, other technologies that are easily abused to create unusable interfaces are also unusable.  Hence the supposed information architect asking for information about DHTML usability.

Ten years ago, we mocked user interfaces where every button was a different colour and a different font as "Visual Basic interfaces."  Did those interfaces make Visual Basic a bad UI technology?  Should UI experts today insist on hearing about VB usability before agreeing to it as a development tool?  Of course not.  VB made it easy to create bad UIs.  It also made it easy to create great UIs.

The problem, then as now, was that there are more bad UI designers than good UI designers.

There are legitimate questions about the usability of popup menus and other complex artefacts on Web pages.  I would certainly like to know how the tradeoff between lengthy static menus, search facilities and fiddly popup menus works for different user profiles.  But to cast this in terms of whether Dynamic HTML, as an implementation technology, is "usable" or not is to miss the point.

Post scriptum: It's worth mentioning that there are often usability issues with particular technologies.  For example, Visual Basic's drawing performance used to be awful.  This would have a huge effect on the usability of a graphics-heavy user interface, and the UI team should be aware of this and should either choose a more suitable technology or find a UI that was practical given the technical constraint.

Naturally from a UI point of view we would prefer option 1, but sometimes it's not realistic to tell a room full of VBers, "Okay, chaps, we need to learn C, and we need to learn it by Tuesday."  But it would be wrong for the UI designer here to ask, "Are UIs developed in VB usable?"  The right question is, "Given the practical constraints on the technology, what is the best UI?"  Design is often about trading off ideals against practicalities, and UI design is no exception.

September 21, 2002 in Software, Usability | Permalink


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