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VII.2 March-April 2000
Page: 70
Digital Citation

Design brief: Sun Microsystems

Tom Spine

back to top  About Sun Microsystems, Inc.

Sun Microsystems, Inc. ( is a provider of products, services, and support solutions for building and maintaining network computing environments. Sun markets its products primarily to business, government, and education customers. With $12.4 billion in annual revenues, Sun operates in more than 150 countries.

back to top  Philosophy of Design

At Sun's Burlington, MA campus, my group's goal is to make the role of the user interface designer as fundamental as the roles of the software engineer, technical writer, and quality-assurance engineer. Our product development efforts typically last from six months to a year. Software engineers, technical writers, and quality assurance engineers staff development projects from start to finish. When user interface design and usability are important to a project's success, then designers also staff the project from start to finish.

I strive to have the designers in my group work on one project at a time. A designer's effectiveness is diminished by more than half for each additional project she takes on. Good design on complex projects takes thoughtful analysis and thorough knowledge of the project's subject matter. It cannot be done on a part-time basis.

Working on a project full-time also helps designers establish meaningful working relationships with the rest of the project team. These relationships are critical to designers' success in having the product implemented in a manner faithful to their design vision.

Designers should be firm, but not dictatorial, in creating and guiding a vision. Designers need to create an atmosphere in which all team members feel that they can contribute to the design. It is important that everyone be able to propose design ideas, even if the ideas are not thoroughly thought out. The more design ideas the better. Proposing and discussing multiple design ideas often help to uncover the good design ideas.

With a staff of only four designers and one usability engineer, I trade off having my group work on many projects for the ability to focus full-time on a small number of projects. I maintain that this is the long-term key to success for the role of the user interface designer. Success creates demand, and demand ultimately creates the management support and budget to hire more designers.

back to top  Design Process

bullet.gif Design as an Integral Part of the Engineering Process

The design of the user interface should be treated the same as every other aspect of the product development process. The design needs to be in the project schedule. It needs to have clearly identified inputs, usually a functional specification. And it needs to have a clearly identified deliverable, usually a user interface design specification. Like other project documents, the design specification is subject to review and revision. A unique aspect of the user interface design is that its revisions are based on usability evaluation feedback, as well as peer, engineering, and management review.

Within these bounds, our design process is open and flexible. The goal of the design process is to articulate a vision of the product to be built. Arriving at that vision is as much a creative process as any other industrial design effort. It is also both a group and a solitary activity.

Group activities include designers, engineers, technical writers, and quality assurance engineers. Customer site visits can be one of these activities. Brainstorming and affinity diagramming sessions are common. The development of user interface maps and sketch overviews of the user interface is often done as a group activity. Group sessions are also held to review and refine interface text.

However, the designer is solely responsible for putting the vision together. This is an iterative process that usually starts with the interface maps and sketch overviews, progresses through more detailed sketches, and on to high-fidelity drawings. These high-fidelity drawings, along with detailed prose, evolve into a user interface design specification. Each stage in this process is subject to peer review, project team review, and usability testing.

While much of our design process involves determining what a user interface looks like, we emphasize that this is only the visible portion of what user interface design is really all about—the design of interaction and work flow.

back to top  Design Project Example

The design of SunLink Server Manager, a new Sun application, illustrates many aspects of our design process. We needed to determine what features to include in the application and what user interface style to use. The answers emerged through a series of team-wide brainstorming and investigative meetings woven with solitary investigations and design activities.

The first design artifact from this project was an affinity list of brainstorming ideas that are an early cut at the application's objects and actions. Generating and organizing these ideas were team activities.

Other design artifacts include 14 pages of handwritten notes and 14 sketches of user interface ideas. Half of the sketches are overviews, whereas the others are quite detailed. The earliest sketches show three distinct user interface styles. The later sketches show six variations on the style we decided to pursue. Although the sketches are mine, the evolution of the ideas they reflect was the result of both group-wide conversations and solitary design activities.

My sketches quickly evolved into high-fidelity design drawings, and four weeks into the project, I published the first version of the user interface specification. Sketches are great for getting to a design idea, but high-fidelity drawings are critical for communicating the design to software engineers at the level of detail that they need. Over the next four weeks, the user interface specification underwent three revisions, with each revision adding more detail. The final revision is 50 pages long and contains 45 design drawings.

Usability testing of the design did not occur for another five weeks, but this delay was due to resource constraints, not a lack of desire to do early testing. Prior to the release of the product, two rounds of usability testing were conducted, each involving six participants. Both rounds, as well as beta site feedback, resulted in design changes. Although the specification was not revised, the changes were documented in design notes and email messages. In all, eight months elapsed between the start of the project and the completion of the design. During this time, this was my only project.

back to top  Author

Tom Spine
Manager, Solaris East Coast User Interface Design
Sun Microsystems, Inc.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Sunlink server manager affinity list

F2Figure 2. SunLink server manager page of design notes

UF1Figure. Tom Spine, Manager, Solaris East Coast User Interface Design, Sun Microsystems, Inc.

back to top  Sidebar: Company Snapshot

Job Titles for Design and Usability Positions
User interface designer and usability engineer.

Job Qualifications
A bachelor's degree or higher in a human-computer interaction field or equivalent experience.

Number Employed in Design and Usability
Sun employs over 70 people in design and usability positions.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

A favorite quote of mine: "Learning to program has no more to do with designing interactive software than learning to touch-type has to do with writing poetry. The design of interactivity is scarcely taught in programming school. What we need in software is what people are taught in film school, at least to whatever degree it can be taught. Designing for the little screen on the desktop has the most in common with designing for the Big Screen (directing theatrical films)." –Nelson, T.H. "The Right Way to Think About Software Design." In The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Laurel (ed.), Addison-Wesley, 1990.

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