Corel Corporation is an internationally recognized developer of award-winning graphics and business productivity applications. Development of market-leading products, such as the CorelDRAW® line of graphics applications and the Corel® WordPerfect® family of business tools, is continually evolving to meet the demands of the corporate, retail, and academic markets. More information is available at Corel's Web site (http://www.corel.com).
Corel's philosophy of design has been refined over more than 10 years in the software industry. Corel has always played a leadership role in investigating new technologies. This pioneering attitude has compelled the company to assume a strong design stance and to provide leadership in the establishment of graphic UIs. Corel was the first to create a vector drawing application for Windows® 3.1 and has maintained creative rigor with every new iteration of the platform. In other areas, Corel has participated and even guided the design of UIs for Java, Unix®, Macintosh®, and now Linux®.
The notion of design has always been integral to the development of software applications at Corel, but largely as an unwritten requirement. The recent diversity and rapid growth of the company have forced it to formalize the design process. A critical component of this design process is the user interface and usability team.
User interface design is recognized as a distinct job title as well as department title (although members are dispersed into the satellite development teams). The designers are recognized as specialists and are core members of the software engineering teams. Designers contribute significantly at the beginning of the product specification and planning stage and are crucial contributors during the actual construction of the code base. Additionally, the UI designers assist in the postdelivery stage by providing important feedback and criticism.
Corel can clearly identify the importance of human interface design in the success of its products. Anything that was shipped with marginal UID involvement has almost always been disappointing in the marketplace. Conversely, products that receive significant UI and usability work have performed very well and contribute to the product's success. The success of the UI team's input is in large part due to the support received from the development teams. At smaller companies, engineers must assume a great deal of the UI design task; by having a specialist, they can focus on what they do best. In many ways, the engineers derive a great deal of pride in their work and want it to appear in the best possible light. The UID team gives them the visual and functional polish to highlight a process or component.
Finding experienced designers in Canada is a bit of a challenge, and it is not realistic to try and lure talent from the U.S. The strategy at Corel has been to identify candidates that fit an ideal profile for the role and then mentor them into an ideal contributor. The UI team at Corel is given a great deal of freedom to innovate and explore new ideas, but these are always discussed and communicated to other team members. We have a guideline document that assists new members in understanding our goals and direction, but it is a fluid and malleable set of rules. Ultimately, alignment is achieved in an acceptable philosophy, meaning that a consensus is not always evident, but the parties agree to support a vision. This young and energetic team plays an important part in the shift of energy toward an HCI-intense process.
Companies have come to the conclusion that feature-rich applications are not the path to success. Ninety percent of computer users use less than 20% of any application's feature set. In order to appeal to the consumer, companies need to provide an easy-to-use and intuitive product. UI design and usability are critical factors in the success of future software applications. Additionally, there is an important requirement for users to feel represented in the products; therefore, the designer must acknowledge the diversity of our customers.
At Corel, the user profile is very clear. It is a broad profile but one that has been well defined over the years. Our designers need that same broad range of skills in order to represent the users accurately. We prefer to have well-rounded and diverse experience in lieu of specific and highly specialized training. Certainly, in other companies that cater to a very specific market segment, a certain degree of specialization is crucial.
It is probably best to outline the design process in terms of a product development outline. The designer participates at every level of the process, contributing different skills at each point. In terms of specifics, the designers are left to execute their tasks as they see fit, using the tools that are comfortable and familiar. The team is normally formed based on the required workload, with management added to coordinate the goals. Usability input is provided in a consultative format and helps to direct the initial creative steps. We separate the process into the following broad areas.
Business Plan Stage
- Review programmatic requirements for new version/application.
- Liaison with marketing/tech support/development team to establish user profile.
- Initiate or compile information regarding usability issues. Test, analyze and summarize results.
- Establish a vision statement for design.
- Review currently available competitive software.
- Map feature list and UI specifics for analysis in the business plan.
- Make recommendations for the implementation of new features.
Preliminary Development Stage
- Prepare draft specification outlines.
- Build interaction design prototypes (iterative testing) and generally establish the UI model.
- Target human interface issues that require prioritization and establish resources for successful implementation.
- Revisit the vision statement and adjust as required.
Project Development Stage
- Prepare and maintain the project specification.
- Liaison with the development team to pinpoint and resolve problematic issues.
- Provide input and review of graphic requirements.
- Liaison with the creative team to establish final designs.
- Review product progress daily and provide feedback to the development team regarding deficiencies.
- Using standard development tools, assist the development team in the completion of UI design.
- Compare released product to initial specification.
- Analyze achievements and deficiencies.
- Summarize findings for next version and future applications.
- Identify and assist in the application of patent approvals.
By placing the designers into the development teams, they share the successes and failures collectively. A well-received product reflects well on the entire team. Perhaps this is indicative of a more "Canadian" approach to development, with less of a focus on an individual contribution and more on the entire effort.
Corel has acknowledged the importance of HI design in its products and has gone so far as to initiate a "think tank" of sorts, to assist in idea generation. The UI role figures prominently in the creative facilitation of the group, moving from being a simple contributor to more of an architect.
The UI designer's role has been fairly simple in the last few years: the dominance of one particular platform has made the creative focus somewhat narrow. With the advent of Linux® and, at a hardware level, the miniaturization of computing devices, the role of the designer has expanded significantly. Technology is changing quickly, and the profession cannot be complacent about the direction of its creative focus.
Recently, Corel released its distribution of the Corel LINUX operating system. This project was built on the foundations of significant work by KDE, the K Desktop Environment. The graphical UI as provided by KDE has some significant UI features. One of the particularly interesting features is the ability to organize the desktop workspace into separate "virtual desktops." This is a powerful and exciting tool that is clearly unique to the Linux/Unix® environment. Its implementation in the KDE version was not effective in accentuating its features, nor was it intuitively manifested in its control set (see figure 2, the buttons labeled "One, Two, Three, Four").
The challenge was to design the control in a manner that would integrate it discreetly into the desktop and to provide an ease of use that leverages the direct manipulation paradigm of the graphical UI. This small element was heavily dependent on a redesign of the desktop "Panel." Different objects on the panel were rendered in a similar manner, adding to the confusion of the tool's function. Because the control appeared to be equal to the others, users selected the buttons, causing the desktop to switch, and more alarmingly, making the user's work disappear (Figure 1).
The solution was simple: The existing raised button controls (deemed too similar to docked task windows) were redesigned to be representative of their function. Their placement was adjusted and diminished. Now set away from the task buttons, the "virtual desktop" buttons would not be mistakenly invoked, and more importantly, the user is intrigued by the icons and is encouraged to explore the tool in a more playful and relaxed mode.
As an extension of the design work on the virtual desktop controls, it was clear that additional functionality was required to help the user manage the separate desktops. In order to investigate what was open on any desktop at any time, the user was forced (in the KDE version) to invoke each desktop and visually scan the screen. In the Corel version, a virtual desktop manager was designed into a fly-out window. Now the user had access to a bird's-eye view of all the desktops. To push the design even further, the user is able to grab an open window in the manager and drag it to another desktop.
This design problem was unusual in that the project placed very limiting constraints on the development team. As in many projects, time and resources were a rare commodity, and a solution was required immediately. Only limited usability testing and exploration were accomplished, calling on an intuitive solution from the design team. Although not the preferred process, it is not uncommon for this type of "gonzo" design to be performed in the software industry. In this case, the solution was achieved based on the implicit understanding of the designer for the technology and the target audience. Experience was the critical factor in the success of this design solution.
Director, User Interface and Usability
Job Titles and Qualifications for Design and Usability Positions
Designer 1/usability specialist (UI1): normally a junior member of the team or student with limited experience. Works in support of a senior UI designer on a particular product or process. Candidates are expected to have schooling in some area of human factors research or allied fields.
Senior designer/usability specialist (UI2): a team member with 2-plus years of in the design of a specific product. Has substantial proprietary knowledge of the company's design guidelines and has shown initiative in the creative advancement of the corporate UI design paradigms. Capable of a mentoring role for junior designers.
Design manager/usability manager/UI architect (UI3): leads the design for a particular product group. Assumes a more administrative role, but is still relied upon for creative facilitation and direction. A nonmanagement role is available for exceptional candidates who wish to pursue research and design destined to be implemented across the product families.
Director, UI/usability (UI4): directs the creative vision of the UI/usability team in alignment with the goals and vision of the company. Facilitates the communication of the team members and actively encourages growth and improvement. May assume a working role on mission critical projects.
Corel is a large and growing company and currently employs more than 1500 people in Canada, the United States, and Europe. The UI/usability team consists of a dozen full-time employees and a fluctuating group of part-time, student, and contract members.
The entire team is divided into the functional product groups (that is, Graphics, Linux, etc.). The Design manager heads each group. Individual products within the groups will have at least one senior UI designer each. Each senior designer will have several UI designers and at least one usability specialist.
Cooper A. About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design. CA IDG Books, Foster City, 1995, p. 580.
I.D. The International Design Magazine. 116 East 27th Street, Floor 6, New York, NY 10016.
Wired Magazine. 520 3rd St., 3rd floor, San Francisco, CA, 94107.
Corel PHOTO-PAINT 9®
Microsoft® Developer Studio
Yellow tracing paper
Assorted pens, markers, and tape
"A good UI is invisible" attributed to Alan Cooper
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