Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book review:"designing the obvious" by Robert Hoekman, Jr.

I recently finished Robert Hoekman's new book, "designing the obvious: a common sense approach to web application design". I enjoyed the book and thought that Hoekman had some good insights into what it means to produce quality design, though I also had some disagreements and found some of his advice to be of limited value in the domain of enterprise software.

One of the things that liked best was the section on "understanding users". This has long been a pet peeve of mine -- while obviously good designers needs to understand their users, I've often felt that running usability tests on design were of limited value. And I think the issue is that we often ask the wrong questions. Hoekman has a great summary of this problem:

For example, if I were designing and building an application used to track sales trends for the Sales department in my own company, my first instinct... would be to hunt down Molly from Sales and ask her what she would like the application to do. Tell me, Molly, how should the Sales Trends Odometer display the data you need?

I would never ask my father the same type of question. My father knows next to nothing about how Web sites are built, what complicated technologies lie lurking beneath the pretty graphics, or the finer points of information architecture. He wouldn't even be able to pick a web application out of a lineup, because he doesn't understand what I mean by the word application...

What my father does know is that the model rockets he builds for fun on weekends require parts that he has to hunt down on a regular basis... If I told my dad he could buy these parts online, he'd be interested. If I asked him how the application should filter the online catalog and allow him to make purchases, he'd look at me like I was nuts.

Molly from Sales would likely do the same thing.

Molly has no idea what your software might be able to do, and she almost certainly doesn't have the technical chops to explain it.

I think this is a great point. We need to understand our users and we need to understand how they use the product (or use our proposed new designs), but we should not be asking them to design our product. We're the professional software designers - we shouldn't abdicate our responsibilities onto the user. It's nice to see Hoekman saying that in print.

I also liked what Hoekman had to say about turning beginners into intermediates. Basically, the biggest proportion of most products' user base is the "perpetual intermediate". Someone who has learned just enough to get by, and has no plans to ever learn more. One of our goals is to help beginners reach this stage. WAS does quite a bit in this space, perhaps most notably in our "Command Assist" functionality in the console, which allows people to transition easily from using the console to using scripting.

The only major problem I had with the book, and it's not all that major, is that it was written with an assumption that bad design happens out of ignorance for many of the principles he is espousing. That people are not doing things the right way because they don't know the difference between the right way and the wrong way. Clearly, this is sometimes true, but I think it's the exception to the rule (at least it is the exception when there are professional usability people involved in the project... and the audience for the book seems to be professional usability people). The simple fact is that there is a cost associated with improving the design of a feature or a product. Designing things well takes more time and people. It usually means that the system is taking on more of the complexity from the user, which requires more coding and testing. Everyone wants good design, but when push comes to shove, I think many of our customers would admit that if better design means fewer features and longer time to market... well, it's not a no-brainer that better design should win the day. It's a balance. Sometimes better design is the right answer, and sometimes time-to-market pressures are too important to lengthen the release cycle to include an expensive, iterative design phase. Being able to tell the difference between those cases is the trick, and not an easy one. But the point is that the "obvious" design techniques that Hoekman discusses are already common design techniques in most shops... when there's time to do them.

But overall I thought it was an excellent book, especially for people who are trying to go from beginner to intermediate in their design skills. It's well-written and engaging, and that counts for a lot.

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