The Way Things Look for 2007

The beginning of the year is a good time to rethink everything from personal finances to the extra stuff in your closets to your business plan. I looked at many of those things thinking through possible ‘resolutions’ for 2007.

There is growing evidence that visualization and “the way things look” effects all we do – especially now that we get a majority of our information through a computer screen. My wife has not been a heavy internet user, but she spent December researching her next vehicle using Edmunds.com and Consumer Reports info mixed in with manufacturers sites and actual test drives. She liked certain sites and hated others – because they made it easy to understand a lot of data about new automobiles. When it came time to decide – she was armed with more information than ever before and when her car arrives later this month I expect there will be no cognitive dissonance about the purchase.

Internet usage continues to grow at an unprecedented rate and people are actually choosing the usefulness – not just the self-publishing (MySpace, Facebook) and time-wasting (YouTube) features.

The fact is there is so much more information available now – that we need intelligent design of it – and advanced filtering to see for ourselves. Reading my daily blogs and info updates I have recently seen a couple of interesting articles on the history of the Graphical User Interface. Of course, there is a wikipedia entry, but also a nice collection of GUIs found here as well.

At Macworld 2007, Steve Jobs rolled out the much-anticipated iphone (naming rights still pending;-) with a very slick user interface that only requires our fingers. This type of touch-screen interface already has competition from Microsoft, GE Healthcare, Mitsubishi and brilliant engineer Jeff Han who made his debut last year at TED 2006 and then had his video downloaded a quarter of a million times from YouTube to become on of the most popular tech videos of all time according to Fast Company.

Last week Guy Kawasaki riffed on the The Art of Visualization where he pointed to some very cool third-party graphical representations of his book The Art of The Start. He also linked to the Periodic Table of Visualization about how data and abstract thoughts can be visualized. I recognized many of my thoughts (and way cooler diagrams) on how we can visually explain our client’s businesses.

This visualization clarity is related to our love of Tufte’s information design books. The poster he sells of Napoleon’s March on Moscow in the Russian campaign of 1812 may be the best example of complex data being visually displayed for laymen to understand. Tufte offers an excellent course if interested.

Boxes and Arrows (with a brand new web interface themselves) has an interview online with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice
“The problem used to be, ‘how do we get information out to people?’ That problem has now been solved in spades. Now the problem is, ‘how do we filter the information so that people can actually use it?’”

One answer: user-centered design with multiple avenues to find the information that solves their needs – when they need it. Information Architects and Web Designers should all start with a better understanding of their audiences. Those personas and user profiles are not steps to be skipped, but instead are steps toward visual design that works.

In User Interface Design for Programmers, software guru Joel Spolsky describes it as:

“When you’re thinking about user interfaces, it helps to keep imaginary users in mind. The more realistic the imaginary user is, the better you’ll do thinking about how they use your product.… Thinking about a “real” person gives you the empathy you need to make a feature that serves that person’s need.…”

So how do things really look to your users? In this recent post from Joining Dots they have an interesting quote from Larry Bassidy, former CEO of Honeywell “Ask a CEO what kind of culture they have and they will describe the kind of culture they want, as if it exists, instead of describing what is really going on.”

They go on to wonder aloud if companies really “want” a user-centered design or collaboration and knowledge sharing or whether companies really want to impose guidelines within which users can publish intranet material. A difference between what they say and what they do.

Actually creating useful pages is far harder. We have found in user tests of our own web development, users say one thing and actually do another (they also frequently overstate their web-savviness – but that’s another topic;-). So just how can a developer use audience information and user personas to improve the visual medium? We all must have a more thorough understanding of the way people will use our sites and web application pages. Too frequently client directives like marketing, advertising, corporate opinions, and most often “how they sell” stand in the way of creating truly useful interfaces to “why customers buy.” Solve that one and your web application has a far greater chance for success.

Start 2007 with a renewed push for the way things look. Make resolutions that make you look at things differently. Review the masters of visual display who have solved far greater problems with elegant solutions. Have your newsreader search the web for useful insight. And don’t settle for “because that’s how we have always done it.” It’s all new again.

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