Creative Fuel: Evaluating Good Design Objectively

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Fall is my favorite time of the year. Sure, I enjoy leaf peeping and bulb planting, but autumn has additional attractions for me. Because summer is over and a new school year is starting, it has always been, for me, an opportunity to reflect and renew. By the time January and the depths of winter roll around, I'm ready to spend my reflection time in front of a warm hearth. The urge to indulge in lively reflection has mellowed by then into a desire for rumination and rest after the busy holiday period.

So it is that while the leaves have been turning gold, orange and flame-red, my thoughts have been returning to past columns and themes. I talked about award programs this year and I talked with designers about how they do what they do. What stood out most in my mind -- and in the mind of some readers -- was the concept of "good" design.

My conversation with Kit Hinrichs a few months ago struck a chord with many readers because Hinrichs' experience with the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly in design has given him much pause for reflection. He and I are scheduled to return to this discussion later this month after he completes an extensive series of business trips around the nation and the world.

Is Good Design Functional?
Meanwhile, one of my experiences at Seybold helped me contemplate further one crucial aspect of design -- usability. It so happens that the experience was centered on Web design, but (as is so often the case) what works for the Web applies print. I spent an hour listening to Cia Romano, CEO and founder of Interface Guru, a company that evaluates the user experience of Web site visitors.

Romano is a spirited and engaging speaker, but there is very little fluff in what she says. Under her leadership, Interface Guru has developed a thorough set of criteria for evaluating the usability of a Web site. Implicit in the criteria is the belief that if a visitor is confused or lost when visiting a site, then the design of the site is flawed and therefore not what can be considered "good" design.

I agree with this belief. Web or print design is only "good" if it is functional. When a designer cares primarily about appearance -- especially when function is compromised for the sake of appearance -- the work has crossed an aesthetic threshold and has become art. I am all for "art for art's sake," but as a client I don't want to pay for a designer's artistic indulgences.

Back to Romano: She believes that successful Web sites get out of the Web site user's way and help the person reach his goals. Therefore, any aspect of the site, including and particularly the design of the site, should be guided by these twin aspirations. The dictum is spelled out on the company's Web site, "A good Web interface is 'transparent' -- meaning, it's so easy to use that you forget it's there. Good interface anticipates what the user wants to do and provides a clear way to do it."

Romano and her colleagues use several methods to test the user friendliness of a Web site, but most intriguing to me was the method she described during her session as Seybold. We became the test group and together we evaluated the usability of several sites, including a site or two designed by audience members. Since the room was equipped with a high-speed Internet connection she could bring the sites up "live" and then ask us questions.

I should point out that the audience was an informal test panel. When doing this kind of testing for clients, Romano brings in live human subjects who are representative of the desired or intended audience for the client's site. The questions she asked during the session were based on the five basic question areas she has developed for use in evaluating clients' sites. She calls it the Usability Times 5 method for evaluating a site's effectiveness.

As she demonstrated, she works slowly and methodically with the test subject, using five questions to help guide the evaluation. She listens patiently and quietly to the responses but prompts continually for more information and more feedback. She didn't have to ask many questions during the session because we discovered quickly how effective this method is in pinpointing design flaws.

Objective Meets Subjective
I have decided to include her questions along with my comments because any designer who wants to improve the quality of the work will find them useful food for thought:

Orientation: Where am I? The test subject asks this question when first arriving at the site and whenever they desire to or are asked to make a move elsewhere on the site.
Interactivity: What can I do here? I think this was my favorite question because it refers to how well the test subject can guess, intuit, or generally understand the links and outline of a site. Two of my pet peeves about Web site design are inconsistent navigation and text that looks like a link but is really a dead end.
Permission: Did I request that? You know what this question is all about-the windows that pop open without the user clicking on anything or ads that appear out of nowhere. To me, this question is a starting point for asking if anything annoying happens while the user is visiting the site.
Relevance: Does this matter to me? We can get so caught up in the aesthetics of what we are creating that we forget that people usually have a purpose in mind when reading. They also aren't usually just killing time by poking around a particular site. They want something and it's our job to help them get it.
Speed: How long will this take me? This isn't just about how long it takes to find something on a site, but also how long it takes for the site or graphics to load. Spare me, please, from Web site designers who design as if all the world has DSL or cable modems at their disposal.

I like the idea of using a set of established criteria to evaluate a site, and I like even more the idea of having an objective external party doing the evaluation. We all get so caught up in what we create that it's difficult to step back and be objective. Thank goodness for people like Kit Hinrichs and Cia Romano who are there to help us see more of what good design entails.

Read more by Molly Joss.

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