The Value of Realistic Experience #2: Lessons Learned from a Software Purchase

Our business team was evaluating several options for a major software purchase. We’d done our due diligence and had a detailed checklist of all our requirements. We rated each potential purchase against our checklist and the final choice seemed clear. So we made the purchase.

Then we started using the software. It turned out to be one of the most troublesome applications I’ve ever used. Tasks that should have been simple were unnecessarily complex (I shared an example in this post). Errors were frequent and error messages were obscurely worded (e.g., “Object reference not set to an instance of an object”). Features that were supposedly included actually required a fair amount of programming—by our programmers, not the vendor’s—in order to work.

We learned a valuable lesson from this experience: you can’t expect to evaluate usability of software with checklist—especially if you’re getting your answers from the company’s marketing brochures or sales representatives. When you’re evaluating usable design, there’s no substitute for hands-on, real-life experience.

Why We Design

Some time ago I used a web application that underwent a major redesign. The new design was beautiful–far more artistic than the old design. Unfortunately, the redesign also removed some of the most useful features of the application, in addition to making other features harder to use. Forums were buzzing frustrated users who were finding it difficult to do their work.

I remember hearing one of the designers on the application speak at a conference. Afterward, I came away a sense of why the design seemed to have floundered. For him, the main purpose of design was to create something visually appealing. User experience seemed, if not secondary, at least satisfied by an exceptional visual design.

On another occasion (it might have been the same conference), I remember hearing someone say that design is communication. That seemed accurate, and certainly better than focusing only on aesthetics, but it still didn’t go far enough.

Later, I came across these two quotes which capture for me the essential purpose of design:

Design is not solely about making things aesthetically pleasing, although that is part of it. Design, at its core, is about solving problems. And whatever that problem is—from squeezing oranges to running faster to communicating effectively—designers strive to help their users solve their dilemma in the most convenient, simple, and elegant way. Essentially, designers focus on the experience, making it as beautiful and memorable as possible. (Nancy Duarte, slide:ology.)

[Design] comes to grips with the very essence of a problem and proceeds to develop a solution organically, from the inside out, as opposed to “styling,” which concerns itself largely with the distinctive mode of presentation or with the externals of a given situation. The design activity is based upon an understanding of the intrinsic principle of a given problem and its solution. (Hugh De Pree, quoted by Roger Martin in The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.)

Solving problems. At the heart of it, that’s why we design!

Of Choice and Forgiveness

It was five minutes before my meeting with a colleague (on usability, in fact!), and I was shutting down my laptop to head over to the meeting room. Earlier in the day I’d noticed that little exclamation point on my Windows Shutdown button, indicating that updates would be installed when I shut down. However, in my rush to get to the meeting my hand went on autopilot and I clicked the Shutdown button before I remembered the updates.

18 updates this time. Of all the days. Well, I thought to myself, hopefully they’ll be fast.

They weren’t.

20 minutes later, I finally made it to my meeting. (Fortunately, my Android tablet doesn’t have these types of usability issues, so I got a message to my colleague about the delay.) Ah, the irony: poor usability got in the way of my getting to my usability meeting!

Two key usability principles were violated in this experience. The first is that good design gives the user a choice when a course of action could have negative consequences. Windows should have told me approximately how long the updates would take to install, and then let me choose whether or not to install the updates at that time.

The second is that good design is forgiving. Errors should be easy to correct. I hadn’t meant to start the update process, but once I did, there was no way to cancel or pause the updates—only the ominous warning not to shut off my machine. (I learned the hard way that the warning is valid. Once a similar update was making me late for a critical meeting where I was presenting. In desperation I shut the machine off anyway, and it was never the same afterward.)

I’m sure the person who designed the interface and process thought they were justified in not giving me a choice of when to install the updates. After all, updates are good, and people shouldn’t delay installing them. Reasonable assumptions, right?

Not for me that day.

Usable design doesn’t impose assumptions on users; instead, it gives them the ability to make choices and recover from those choices when necessary.

Book Review: Universal Principles of Design

Universal Principles of Design, by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, has become one of my favorite design resources. The book is effective as a reference, but it’s also an enjoyable read straight through. It’s a book that practices what it preaches.

The edition I have (2003) covers 100 design principles; there’s an updated edition that covers 125. Not only is the book visually appealing, but its organization and layout make it easy to find information. There are two tables of contents: one which lists the principles alphabetically, and the other which lists them by category. Each principle gets a two-page spread, with an explanation on the left and examples on the right. The explanation is readable and the examples engaging and thought-worthy.

A key strength of the book is its cross-disciplinary approach. Examples come from areas as diverse as technology, psychology, and economics, showing how design impacts virtually every profession and every aspect of life. As a result, the book encourages thoughtful application of these principles to a wide variety of situations.

I find that I come back to this book time and again, for a refresher as well as new learning. If I had one suggestion, it would be for the authors to create an interactive online version, with all the benefits of hypertext and digital media. The basic principles won’t change, though, and that’s what makes this book a worthwhile resource for any designer.