Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 13
Digital Citation

Seeing is believing

Dr. Usability

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Dear Doctor Usability,

I am having trouble with my product team: They just don't get it. I am trying to be the champion for the user; I try to make sure technology is accessible and usable. I try to capitalize on the user's existing skills to use technology to do cool new things. I have set myself up as the real advocate for the end user. Now for the problem: We just hired this very arrogant graphic designer and he is fighting me at every turn. I want graphics with clear, concise, and efficient meaning. All he seems to want is prettier graphics! How do I get him to focus on the meaning of the pictures? Now get this, this person claims he's the advocate for the user! He claims, "I am trying to keep their lives from being dull and boring, so that they can have things on their computer they love to look at." Can you settle the fight? Who is the real user advocate here?

—Frustrated in Cubeville

Dear Frustrated,

If you ask me, graphic designers are evil incarnate. Give them the tiniest encouragement and they take over. This is a deplorable condition, but what would we do without them? All your stakeholders, from Frank Bigbucks to Freddie the Loser, identify the system with its visual appearance. Did you know that we take in 80 percent of our information visually? It's not surprising that the graphics are all your customers really "see." Users don't "see" the elegance of good, clean interaction design at first glance; they have to use the design to get the "feel." But they do see your boring, flat, uninteresting graphics, and form impressions of your work based on that. All the hard work, the task analysis, the gut-wrenching synthesis, and the great over-arching conceptual architectures just don't cry out for attention. And it's not just users, mind you. Your executives and even your engineers will be hard pressed to appreciate your GOMS models, your information architectures, or even your task-flow diagrams. When was the last time you presented an application flow chart and got tremendous applause? All too often, after a presentation I hear people groan, "Oh dear, that was done by a usability professional, wasn't it?"

I know this is terrible, but I have to admit that in my last project, anticipating the ridicule that my beautiful cross-workgroup wireframes were going to get, I went to Simon, the resident graphic designer and asked him to help me with it. He destroyed all the beautiful austerity, the separation of text and graphics, the muted visual communication. It became all explicit and visually slick. No one commented on the elegant nested hierarchies of my information models. No one shook my hand congratulating me on my excellent data object-to-use case mappings. But they all applauded and said it was the best looking system I had ever designed (I didn't bother to inform them of the subtleties of who did what).

Like it or not, people like Simon make your life easier—if you let them. Naturally this comes at a terrible professional price. Your next few pieces of work will have to be just as visual. I can guarantee you that we got a lot of repeat business from the projects that Simon helped us on.

Here, I think, is the key: Don't compete, cooperate. Beauty isn't just skin deep. It's just like a marriage: You can't live with `em and you can't live without `em. Why am I so perceptive, you may ask? It's easy; I'm a doctor.

In sympathy,
Doc Usability

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0700  $5.00

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