Fresh: rant

XIV.5 September + October 2007
Page: 5
Digital Citation

Don’t just stand there, do something! But don’t panic.

Jonathan Arnowitz

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In one of our first special issues, guest edited by Pabini Gabriel-Petit, we asked, "Who owns the user experience?" The answer that came back was startling: not us. While we have been positioning HCI practitioners as owners of the user experience and responsible for it, that answer relegated us to participation, not ownership. A few years have passed, and it's time to reintroduce this topic.

We're pleased that software companies are making great strides in developing their commitment to great design: The right design team with the right budget, the right resources, and the right plan is the right path to making quality software. Companies committed to great design show their commitment by hiring the best people they can—providing training and professional-development budgets to keep their skills and motivations sharp, and giving them the tools and support they need to practice their craft. And then design deadlines arrive, and the best intentions fly out the window.

Severe time pressures generate all kinds of panic. The type that affects us most directly is design panic: "Oh no! We forgot to do [x]!" or, "Yikes, why does it do that? That doesn't make sense!" or, "Who designed this thing?" and a favorite, "Why isn't there complete documentation of the expected behavior?" The product could be underspecified because we weren't paying the strictest attention, but more likely, it's underspecified because the design team didn't get the head start they needed to lead, rather than follow, the engineering team. If you always have to march at the back of the circus parade, you'd better carry a bucket to pick up what gets dropped in the path by the largest beasts ahead of you. Engineering will take shortcuts because it has to in order to ship the product. Design will take shortcuts because there is no time to stay ahead of engineering. And process suffers because it's just too time-intensive to investigate, analyze, and get user involvement and feedback. The best of processes suffer shortcuts and quick fixes: :Great idea! But too late—we have do that for the next release."

While the problem of not enough time is common, the frequently heard fix is despairingly familiar: "Let's just work in parallel." Build while designing. To be sure, there's often sufficient infrastructure work for engineering to complete, guaranteeing they really won't get to the user-experience elements until you have something to show. But increasingly, user experience isn't just a surface treatment. Engineering often has to build in support for behaviors that aren't intrinsically visual and require deep consideration if UX is to refine, document, or redirect to a different concept.

We regret that design panic is an effect of the peanut-butter or cake-frosting metaphor for user-experience design: Don't worry about it in advance; just pop it on at the end and it will look fine. However, looks are deceiving, and looks aren't everything. A lot of what we do is the "feel" part of "look and feel," and can't be cheated by the clock.

When design panic sets in with software companies, working with users becomes a luxury no one feels they can afford. And it's not just the focus on users that suffers; design documentation gets short-cycled, conversations about far-reaching consequences are curtailed, and innovation defers to a quick exercise in copying the competitor.

Countless times we've been victims of design panic. However, there is no immediate cure in sight. The best remedy is to find another company with better design credentials and hope that the executive management is immune to fits of worry over spending too much time and effort on user experience.

Sometimes, by doing less you can attain more. Cut features, not corners. Plan better. And accept responsibility for keeping your company's design practice on track.

Sadly, it's not just design panic that leads to this disturbingly common shortsightedness. Consumers seem utterly complacent in their acceptance of subpar software products, often assuming it's their inadequacies, rather than poor design or implementation, that causes confusion and a sense of hopelessness that the technology will live up to its promise. And if the product has sufficient eye-candy to attract a crowd, the financial statement can show that a few visible qualities substitute for excellent design. Design shortcuts aren't as apparent when a mega-million-dollar advertising company informs you that whether it's usable or not, owning this product will make you interesting, hip, cutting-edge, or cool—whatever your heart desires.

Sometimes, by doing less you can attain more. Cut features, not corners. Plan better. Realize your opportunities and focus on them. Reject panic—it's bad for your heart and soul, and worse for your product. And lastly, accept responsibility for keeping your company's design practice on track. This will require you to promote your discipline, your work efforts, and yourself. Say it out loud: "I own the user experience." That's the first step. You have voiced an affirmation. Now make it happen.—<eic>

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