19 June 2010

...not thinking

I recently had one of those moments when you go nutty for books. I wanted to seek out some good academic reading on design, but having a fair amount of traditional graphic design knowledge in my locker, and coming from a print background, I figured I'd cast the net a little wider.

I'm what you'd call a 'digital designer' within an agency which deals in a lot of game design. We're called Kerb. You may have heard of us. Or maybe even played one of our virals one lunchtime at your desk. If you've fallen over and hurt yourself whilst stumbling upon us, then that's a different kerb altogether, and I'd advise getting a tetanus jab and call the council about that, and have a good day, thank you.

I'm dealing with a lot of user interface design. You know - the graphical cues and pictorial signposts which help you click the right buttons and navigate the game you're playing or website you're visiting, one screen to the next. You could say I visually jolly things along.

On to my book quest. Three titles stood out as the most relevant to my skills, but different enough from one another to keep things interesting.

I bought:
Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug
Emotional Design by Donald A. Norman
Thoughful Interaction Design by Jonas Löwgren and Erik Stolterman

Before you get too excited / fall off your perch with boredom, I've only read one title so far - 'Don't Make Me Think'. But already, my beliefs and findings have been solidified that digital is as similar to print as we humans are genetically around 95% chimpanzee, and are therefore indebted to its heritage.

The hierarchy of information we scan on-screen every day - and instinctively decipher at a snap - has been learned by you and I over generations by reading all sorts of literature; bibles, books, newspapers, magazines, comics, posters et al.

Taking the cover of a magazine - a modern common denominator for capturing and guiding attention - it's not dissimilar to a web page. We have the masthead occupying the top like a site logo; there's 'what's inside' feature panels prominently displayed like CTA buckets; and our eyes (so we're told from scientific study by patient eggheads, God bless them) follow the path of a golden spiral - hence the callouts on the cover of magazines are traditionally positioned such.

And what do we do next? We hit the next button on the right, or rather, turn the page, following further visual prompts until maybe we lose our way and use the global navigation, aka the contents page. And for those paying attention at the front, I know. A good interface should not have allowed you to lose your way in the first place.

My point is, we're hard-wired a certain way as far as absorbing information is concerned, and our old habits are like John McClane, transferred from the page to behind the click-wheel of a mouse. Therefore, it's important to be facilitated with a nice, intuitive interface. Friendly. That's the word. And that's what 'Don't Make Me Think' is all about.

Its author, Steve Krug, is a usability consultant, and he's taken all his hard-earned experience to create a book as simple to understand as the websites he helps make friendly. It doesn't cover the casual games I specialise in, per se, or their second cousin removed, social media (the book was originally published in 2000, but has more recently been updated), but what it does reveal, with mostly simple, bulleted examples and pictorial evidence, are the essential rudiments of mouse-to-eye-to-brain usability, which is a pretty universal theme in digital today.

Now, some folks in my position may feel that to read such an uncomplicated tome on our 'specialist' chosen subject is to look like some uninformed noddy who should go back to making their Powerpoint-designed, export-for-web creations. And we can't be seen to look like that, can we? But to embrace it is to cast aside any silly vanities and help bolster your own back catalogue of knowledge and semiotic instinct garnered from years of graphical learning. You'll also unearth some neat new chestnuts you'll be surprised you never passed in the corridoors of this establishment. For example: user testing - it's not the same as focus group testing, silly.

Sorry, never knew it.

And whilst you're user testing, in your first session, it's usually more valuable to use lower numbers of volunteers (say, three) than a higher number of your target audience. Why? Because regular 'Joe Bloggs' users will uncannily weed out the most obvious - yet missed - usability clangers.

There are also some very nice analogies for looking at user interface design (which I'm about to mashup and paraphrase wildly) to make you think both logically and laterally.

Example. Imagine I've tied you up (hello?) with a bag over your head (erm?) and stuck you in the boot of my car (okay, I get it. Are there air holes?). Yes, I've thought of everything. There's even a little hamster bottle to your left in case you get thirsty. (Very kind). No problem. Anyway. You're in the trunk, getting driven around for an hour, being disorientated. Then I stop, bundle you out and drop you in the middle of a department store. Your task: find me a vase.

How you respond to this task is dependent on a number of variables, including how well the store is laid out, how clear the signposting is and, even, what sort of mood you're in (angry from the car ride I expect). These circumstances can directly relate to how we navigate a website.

Imagine you've landed in the middle of a page from a Google link. Just like me dropping you inside that department store in the real world, Google has dumped you in the middle of a website, and how you find your way around to complete a task is, again, down to a pretty similar set of variables including layout, signposting and how the user is feeling.

If you're ticked off from the outset, it's unlikely you'll persevere with the task in hand if you're given misdirection from bad layout or signage, but if the overall experience leaves you feeling good about it, then you'll forgive a couple of bum steers. And the warm feelings may not just be down to how easily you find what you're looking for, but also your interaction with the aesthetics. Your feelings. They're something I've always had in the back of my mind as a designer - if what i produce is pleasing to me, at the least aesthetically-speaking, I expect the end user will likely feel good, too.

State of mind and its direct correlation with design is another one of many interesting points raised by our pal Steve Krug, and a factor we should pay as much attention to as the positioning of a label on a submit search button.

So, that's me recommending the book.

With the end-user's mental state in mind, I'm now about to tuck in to the second book on the list, 'Emotional Design'. You can guess what that's about. When i'm done reading, I can let you know if it's any good. But only if you feel like it.