Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Norman doors...

Norman doors...  The video at right, despite coming from Vox, is an excellent introduction to human-centered design (no technical content at all).  The “Norman” is Don Norman, whose work inspired a lot of how we experience computers today.  Note carefully, please, that I am not saying that his ideas have been well-executed :)   Obviously, in many cases, they have not (I'm looking at you, Microsoft!).  But much of what's good about the user interfaces on modern computers can be traced back to his work.

I attended a lecture of his back in the '90s, when his work was just becoming well-known amongst software engineers.  Then, later, I went to a short course he ran (which the company I worked for then helped sponsor), and had a delightful dinner with him.  He went through everything on the table and analyzed how well (or not) it was designed, from a human perspective.  It was so much fun!  But also one hell of a learning experience.

He looked much younger then :)

There is one thing that I think is a bit misleading in this short video, to wit: the video makes it sound obvious and easy to get the design right.  At least with computer user interfaces, that is the exact opposite of the truth.  Why?  Because discoverability and feedback are highly variable from person-to-person.  Someone like me who has been using computers for almost 50 years might find a subtle change in color to be useful and appropriate feedback.  Similarly, I might find a right-click menu to be an obviously discoverable element.  Another person, however, might need a giant purple blinking square, with 50 watt audio accompaniment, before they'd ever notice the feedback.  And that same person might never think of trying a right click – you might as well have buried that feature in a 10 ton block of concrete, as they will never find it.  User interface designers constantly face this challenge: the interfaces they design must be usable by novices, but still useful to experts.  Sometimes a single design can do this well, but that's relatively rare.  More often, the job is either done poorly, or sometimes the only answer is to have multiple designs – one for the noobs, another for the dweebs...

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